Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Infections and immunity

The aim of the Infections and Immunity Board (IIB) is to develop our scientific understanding of human infectious disease and disorders of the immune system, translating these insights into health benefits and ensuring that the UK has the infrastructure, skills and expertise it needs.

Partners involved:
Medical Research Council (MRC)

The scope and what we're doing

The Infections and Immunity Board (IIB) aims to develop scientific knowledge that extends our understanding of human infectious disease and the role of the immune system in pathology. This includes, and is underpinned by, fundamental research into human pathogens, as well as the development and functioning of the human immune system, and how this informs mechanisms of disease. Working with other Medical Research Council (MRC) initiatives and partners, the board aims to ensure that the insights it supports are translated into health benefits, and that the UK has the necessary infrastructure, skills and expertise to fulfil its aims.

Areas of strategic focus

To deliver against its areas of strategic focus, the board supports the development of investments, partnerships and initiatives and is seeking to develop its portfolio of investigator-led awards through board opportunities. Grants meeting board opportunity criteria will be prioritised for consideration in funding decisions.

Global health

Global health is a key MRC strategic aim and IIB plays an important role in developing and delivering this agenda, particularly on priority global infectious diseases. While continuing to support research tackling the major infections, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, we will further support high quality, innovative research in neglected tropical diseases, fungal, and emerging infections, which have major impact on the health and wellbeing of populations in resource poor settings.

Resistance

Pathogens naturally evolve resistance mechanisms to drugs and this can have potentially catastrophic health implications. The importance of preventing and treating resistance in bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and vectors now has global recognition. A broad One Health systems approach is required to investigate and prioritise drivers and constraints of resistance. We need improved methods for predicting resistance, developing new diagnostics, therapeutics (including novel chemistry and combination therapies), and effective intervention regimes, including behavioural changes and the microbiome.

Through the IIB, MRC has developed a cross-council, interdisciplinary approach to address the challenges in antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Together with our sister research councils and other national and international partners, we are enabling researchers in the UK to undertake cutting-edge research, in collaboration with research colleagues around the world, and to use unique approaches to tackling AMR. Our strategy for tackling AMR focuses on identifying, prioritising and understanding the drivers of AMR and using this knowledge to prevent infections, preserve existing antimicrobials and promote the development of new therapies and interventions.

Preparedness

The recent outbreaks of COVID-19, Ebola and Zika, bird and swine flu epidemics, and the ongoing global burden of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, illustrate the large-scale challenges that infectious diseases continue to pose to human health. Strong science in a range of areas needs to underpin a strategy of pandemic preparedness before infection becomes widespread. This should include pathogen biology, innovative approaches to surveillance, modelling, diagnostics, prophylactic interventions and therapeutics, and vaccines.

Our work in pandemic preparedness builds on our experience in the Environmental and Social Ecology of Human Infectious Diseases initiative, which was established to respond to new and emerging pathogen threats. This groundbreaking initiative has supported novel interdisciplinary approaches to study the ecology of infectious diseases. The initiative is complemented by the Zoonoses and emerging livestock systems programme, coordinated by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The aim is to minimise the health risks associated with the rapidly changing nature of livestock systems in developing countries, focusing on the risks that impact the livelihoods and health of people living in poverty.

In addition to supporting research into potential threats, we also responded to disease outbreaks. Most recently, MRC participated in the research response to COVID-19 standing up a number of significant research investments.

Find out more about MRC’s response to COVID-19.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the West Africa Ebola outbreak an emergency in August 2014, MRC quickly engaged with funding partners, including the Wellcome Trust and the Department for International Development (DFID), to begin the first of a number of vaccine trials in the region. MRC co-funded research on the ring vaccination trial, which showed best evidence of a protective effect during the epidemic. In response to the Zika outbreak, we launched a rapid response initiative to provide novel, critical and timely insights into the nature of the virus and potential management or prevention routes. Working with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and BBSRC through the UK Vaccine Network, we are now supporting the development of vaccines against priority pathogens.

Immunity and infection through the life course

The likelihood of developing both acute and chronic disease changes as we age. Various conditions involving the loss of immune tolerance, such as type one diabetes, Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis, typically develop before the age of 40. Whereas conditions such as hypertension, cancer and heart disease are more often seen in older people. During ageing, overall immune responses tend to weaken, resulting in increased susceptibility to cancers and infections such as influenza.

Ageing similarly results in a reduced capacity for repair, together with an impaired response to vaccines. Developing a clear understanding of the changing immune system throughout the life course is key to identifying points where intervention is possible, with a view to altering the immune system to promote appropriate and healthy immune responses as we age.

Chronic infection, comorbidity, immunomodulation

As our ability to manage infections increases, it will be important to deepen our understanding of chronic infections. This includes how persistent infections interact with and affect the host immune system over the life course, and how the immune system might be modulated to better target persistent infections. There is also scope to study the consequences of living with latent infections, how these infections may affect the host through the life course, and what triggers emergence from latency.

Multimorbidity is a major challenge within the ageing UK and wider population. It is important to deepen our understanding of how immune status can contribute to diseases, including the immune mediated inflammatory diseases (IMIDs), neurodegeneration and psychosis. It is also important to understand how infections, including commensal, invasive and co-infections, affect the host immune system over the life course and interact with other communicable and non-communicable morbidities, including cancer, asthma, and mental health.

Immune-mediated inflammatory diseases (IMIDs) represent a wide range of conditions which affect specific or multiple organs and often share both immunological and mechanistic features, but have different clinical manifestations. The spectrum of IMIDs also includes more common autoimmune and autoinflammatory disorders, such as psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. For the most part, research into IMIDs has been pursued in a disease-specific manner driven by clinical presentation and often focussed on the later stages of disease. As such, many of the common mechanisms regarding the initial loss of immune tolerance or early instigators of the inflammatory cascade might not have been fully exploited yet. MRC has a number of significant investments in IMIDs, including an IMID BioBank and a number of stratified medicine consortia. We are looking into ways of working with other interested partners, including industry and other funding agencies to help coordinate activity in this area.

Read the 2017 report on IMIDs by MRC, Wellcome, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Arthritis Research UK.

Data integration and systems approaches – from data to insight

Integrating data between different classes (for example, DNA and proteomic) and levels (such as cell, tissue, individual and population), can provide novel epidemiological and mechanistic insights. Models developed with these insights can be improved upon through a systems approach of iterative cycles of modelling, experimentation and refinement.

We led a cross-council initiative to take a systems approach to understand immune function in health and disease. This initiative established two consortia:

  • multi-scale analysis of B cell responses in ageing at King’s College London
  • phenotyping immune responses in asthma and respiratory infections – a systems approach to understanding changes from childhood to adulthood at Imperial College London and University of Manchester.

Science areas

The infections and immunity board funds research into infectious human disease and disorders of the human immune system. The board seeks to support a diverse portfolio of research that is relevant to the UK and the wider world. In addition, the board’s portfolio aims to address long-standing questions and support the investigation of emergent higher risk opportunities.

Discovery research

The board welcomes submissions on discovery research relating to:

  • human pathogens, pathogenicity, antimicrobial resistance, host pathogen responses including inflammation and the development, function and disorders of the immune system where this informs mechanism of disease
  • immune disease including allergy (except asthma and other organ-based disorders), transplantation immunology, systemic immune disorders and auto-immune disease. Including use of in silico systems, relevant animal models and experimental studies in humans throughout the life course.

Find out more about MRC’s Population Systems Medicine Board.

Population-level research

The board also welcomes submissions on population-level research using epidemiological, genetic and omic approaches, and computational modelling, to elucidate disease risks, aetiologies and progression, and to understand the evolution of pathogen populations and epidemic preparedness.

Novel strategies for preventing and controlling infectious and immune disease

The board welcomes research to inform novel strategies for preventing and controlling infectious and immune disease, including vector control, predictive modelling and early development research to inform future intervention strategies including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

Applying

Find out how to apply for fellowships.

For studies undertaking the development, validation or evaluation of new products or interventions, see:

All applications for funding of new or existing longitudinal population studies need to submit an outline application for joint review by the Longitudinal Population Studies Strategic Advisory Panel (LPS-SAP, previously the Cohort Strategic Review Group) and the research board. Should a full application be invited, this may be submitted to any of the three subsequent board deadlines. This review will take account of strategic and scientific considerations.

Applications for longitudinal population studies must be for core infrastructure only; applications may include associated research only if it is for proof of principle work. Applicants must speak to the relevant programme manager at least six weeks before the outline submission deadline to confirm the eligibility of their application. The outline template, timeline for review and next outline submission deadline can be found on the LPS-SAP page. Applications for funding for clinical (that is, patient-specific or disease-focused) cohorts are exempt from this process.

Strategic investments and partnerships

The Infections and Immunity Board (IIB) provides support to strategic institutes, units, centres and resources.

Institutes

The Francis Crick Institute is a partnership with the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London. It is at the forefront of innovative biomedical research and promotes the translation of its research for maximal benefit.

Units

These include:

Centres

These include:

Resources

These include:

  • the CLIMB-BIG-DATA project (Cloud Infrastructure for Big Data Microbial Bioinformatics) is a collaboration between Warwick, Birmingham, Cardiff, Swansea, Bath and Leicester universities, the MRC unit the Gambia at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Quadram Institute for Bioscience
  • STOP-HCV Stratified Medicine Consortium, University of Oxford – aims to use patient information to establish the most effective and cost-effective treatments for patients with hepatitis C virus
  • the MRC International Statistics and Epidemiology Group based within the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has a mission to help improve health in low and middle income countries by conducting research that identifies and evaluates effective interventions.

Partnerships

IIB works with a wide range of partners to prepare for and respond to infectious disease outbreaks and implement our immunology strategy.

Strategic partnerships

European and developing countries clinical trials partnership (EDCTP)

MRC is a member of this partnership, which aims to accelerate the development of new or improved drugs, vaccines, microbicides and diagnostics against HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as well as other poverty-related infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on phase II and III clinical trials.

The Joint Programming Initiative in Antimicrobial Resistance (JPIAMR)

JPIAMR is an EU-led initiative of global funders that support transnational research to combat AMR.

Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R)

MRC is a member of this global alliance of research funding organisations, which aims to facilitate a rapid, effective research response in the event of an infectious disease outbreak.

World Health Organization (WHO) Global Coordinating Mechanism for research and development for epidemic preparedness (GCM)

The WHO Research and Development (R&D) Blueprint, of which the GCM is a part, is a global strategy and preparedness plan that aims to fast-track the availability of tests, vaccines and medicines to save lives and avert large scale crises in pandemic outbreaks. It focuses on an annually reviewed set of priority diseases, for which there are no, or insufficient, countermeasures. It is generally agreed that preparedness and response, including the work of the blueprint, would benefit from improved coordination and collaboration. The GCM is intended to fulfil this ambition for the blueprint as well as other stakeholder-led initiatives. MRC is a member, along with the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) from the UK.

Funding partnerships

UK Vaccine Network (UKVN)

Launched in 2015, the network brings together industry, academia and funders to make targeted investments (£120 million between 2016 and 2021) in specific vaccines and vaccine technology for infectious diseases with epidemic potential. The network is led by DHSC and supported by MRC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) Initiative

With £14.5 million from MRC and £88 million funding in total, the AMR initiative is the first to be supported by all seven research councils. It takes a multidisciplinary, themed approach to tackling the growing threat of antibacterial resistance

Zoonoses and emerging livestock systems (ZELS)

This is a cross-council programme with £20.5 million funding. It is supported by FCDO, BBSRC, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), MRC and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

IIB’s portfolio of human infectious diseases research includes awards made through several of MRC’s international funding opportunities. We led and supported several Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) initiatives, often in partnership with our sister councils. Both funds formed part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment, which focuses on outcomes that promote the long-term sustainable growth of countries on the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) list.

Recent highlights include:

  • UK and Vietnam partnerships for infectious diseases (Newton Call 2, with £2.75 million total funding) – a second funding opportunity between MRC and the Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology
  • GCRF infections foundation awards (£7.6 million from MRC and £10.9 million in total) – a joint funding opportunity with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), BBSRC, ESRC and NERC. Supported 21 projects with potential to rapidly advance novel infectious disease global health discovery and translation research
  • GCRF vector borne disease (VBD) networks (£1.8 million from MRC and £5.3 million in total) – a BBSRC-led joint funding opportunity with MRC and NERC, supported four interdisciplinary networks addressing challenges relating to VBD of plants, animals and humans
  • GCRF vaccines research and development networks (£6.4 million from MRC and £9.4 million in total) – an MRC-led joint funding opportunity with BBSRC, established five collaborative networks in vaccine research and development targeting LMIC priority diseases integrating basic immunology and pathogen biology with vaccinology.

Opportunities, support and resources available

The infections and immunity board (IIB) has identified key challenges that can only be met with a more integrated approach across our portfolio. These form current board opportunity areas, which the IIB will use to prioritise investments during funding discussions, together with the three cross-board opportunities. We encourage researchers to submit applications that focus on the following areas.

Antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an important global health challenge and a priority for MRC. Our portfolio represents discovery research to gain a better understanding of pathogen virulence and identify targets for new prevention strategies, diagnostics and therapies. However, there is a risk that these discoveries are not taken forward to deliver impact to patients. To address this issue, the board will prioritise interdisciplinary approaches developing new interventions to contain, control and mitigate AMR in bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses.

Data integration and systems approaches – from data to insight

Novel insights can be gleaned by linking data across different dimensions (such as omic, single-cell, cell populations, organ systems, individuals, populations, countries). Researchers will need to engage with bioinformaticians and statisticians during the conceptualisation phase, to formulate compelling research questions and to develop integrative approaches with the potential for significant insight. A systems approach of iterative cycles of modelling and experimentation can be used to build on these insights.

Global health and research underpinning epidemic preparedness

The board seeks to:

  • maintain the momentum generated through our support for networks in vector borne disease and vaccines research and development, through follow-on submissions building on projects that these initiatives support
  • enhance research underpinning epidemic preparedness, such as, but not limited to, relevant research into internationally recognised priority pathogens, for example, those on the WHO research and development blueprint and UK vaccine network lists and non-seasonal influenza.

Immunity and infection through the life course

The board welcomes submissions examining the causative links between immune status and infection and disease. This is so we can further develop our portfolio of studies on how immune status and infection can contribute to disease and to link with the interests of sister boards (for example, mental health and neurodegeneration, neurosciences and mental health; asthma, population and systems medicine; cancer, molecular and cellular).

Cross-board areas

In addition to board opportunities, IIB will prioritise submissions that meet the criteria of MRC-wide opportunities, which apply to all boards. These are:

  • new investigator research grants – supporting researchers towards becoming independent investigators
  • experimental medicine – understanding disease mechanisms and therapeutic targets using human participants
  • advanced therapeutics – including cell or gene therapy, regenerative medicine, innovative medicines.

IIB also supports research areas identified by MRC as a high priority including Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome research.

Who to contact

Immunology

Dr Charly Oakley, Programme Manager

Email: charly.oakley@mrc.ukri.org

Science areas include:

  • normal immunology, including cellular and molecular immunology and inflammation (except inflammation associated with a specific disease)
  • systemic immune disease, including allergies, transplantation immunology, the ageing immune system, immune-oncology and auto-immune disease, but not including asthma, IBD and Crohn’s disease and other organ-specific disorders.

Virology

Dr Claire De May, Programme Manager

Email: claire.de-may@mrc.ukri.org

Science areas include:

  • basic, applied and translational virology that informs the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and mechanism of human disease (including COVID-19)
  • transmission, control and host response to viral infectious agents.

Bacteriology, mycology and antimicrobial resistance

Dr Carolyn Johnson, Programme Manager

Email: carolyn.johnson@mrc.ukri.org

Science areas include:

  • basic, applied and translational bacteriology and mycology that informs the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and mechanism of human disease
  • transmission, control and host response to bacteria and fungal infection
  • research to investigate, mitigate and prevent the development of antimicrobial resistance and to promote the development of new therapies and interventions (including the JPIAMR).

Parasitology

Dr Mariana Delfino-Machín, Programme Manager

Email: mariana.delfino-machin@mrc.ukri.org

Science areas include:

  • basic, applied and translational parasitology that informs the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and mechanism of human disease
  • research into the transmission and control of human parasitic infections and other vector-borne diseases, including work on vector control
  • research addressing snakebite and podoconiosis.

Vaccinology

Dr Mariana Delfino-Machín, Programme Manager

Email: mariana.delfino-machin@mrc.ukri.org

Science areas include:

  • comparative vaccinology, adjuvants and immunomodulation, human challenge models and therapeutic or protective antibodies.

Epidemic preparedness and operational lead for the Board

Dr Anna Kinsey, Head of Programme

Email: anna.kinsey@mrc.ukri.org

Responsible for:

  • oversight of infections and immunity grants and board meetings
  • strategic lead for epidemic preparedness: prediction, prevention, detection and control of emerging pathogens, including tools and plans population protection and to underpin rapid, internationally coordinated response to emergent epidemics.

Infections and immunity

Dr Steve Oakeshott, Head of Infections and Immunity

Email: stephen.oakeshott@mrc.ukri.org

Overarching responsibility for MRC infections and immunity strategy and investments.

Methodology and clinical research

Dr Rosalind Roberts, Programme Manager

Email: rosalind.roberts@mrc.ukri.org

MRC supports methodology research through the MRC and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Better Methods, Better Research programme.

Specific IIB enquiries

Email: iib@mrc.ukri.org

General policy and eligibility enquiries

Research funding policy and delivery team

Email: rfpd@mrc.ukri.org

Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system helpdesk

Email: jeshelp@je-s.ukri.org
Telephone: 01793 444164

Peer review

Email: peerreview@mrc.ukri.org

Last updated: 18 November 2022

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