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17 January, 2020 - 20:54 By Kate Sweeney

Wellcome Trust pledges more billions to science and healthcare research

Wellcome Trust, which backs the Sanger Institute in Cambridge and funds some of the most significant healthcare research programmes in the cluster, has promised to invest further billions into tracking solutions to a range of diseases in 2020 and the years beyond.

Wellcome spent more than £1.1 billion in the last 12 months supporting researchers, taking on big health challenges, campaigning for better science, and helping a range of organisations get involved with science and health research.

Currently it has a £26.8 billion investment portfolio which funds all the work it does. In the next five years, Wellcome reveals that it plans to spend around £5 billion helping people across the world explore great ideas.

As it expounds on its website, Wellcome funds thousands of scientists and other researchers whose work may directly or indirectly contribute to improving health around the world. 

For example, Peter Ratcliffe, a clinician-scientist at the Francis Crick Institute and Oxford University, has been funded by Wellcome for 30 years. This year, he shared a Nobel Prize for his research into how cells respond to changing oxygen levels – work that is now contributing to the development of new drugs to treat anaemia and cancer.

Its support goes beyond funding schemes. Wellcome’s PhD programme, which relaunched in September, required institutions to demonstrate how they would promote a positive research culture as well as focusing on excellent science. This was in line with a campaign Wellcome began in September to ‘reimagine research’ and make it more creative, honest and inclusive. As well as leading to better scientific work, Wellcome’s aim is to ensure more people are able to thrive in research careers as they help achieve the charity’s mission of improving health for everyone.

There were a number of highlights in 2019. Among these, studies of a vaccine developed by the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme showed it contributed to a 34 per cent reduction in the number of children dying from infection with rotavirus in Malawi. 

This virus causes a severe diarrhoeal disease, and the research is the first report of reduced infant mortality in a low-income country using the vaccination schedule recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Other highlights of the year included:-

  • Funding for the first birth cohort in the UK for almost 20 years
  • UK Biobank to begin whole-genome sequencing of all 500,000 participants, greatly increasing researchers’ ability to find associations between genetics and health
  • The first licensed vaccine against Ebola, already used to limit spread of the virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Wellcome Global Monitor, the largest-ever study to try and understand how people around the world feel about science and major health challenges Being Human, a new permanent gallery at Wellcome Collection exploring issues of trust, identity and health in a changing world.

Introducing her final annual report as chair of Wellcome’s board of governors, Eliza Manningham-Buller said: “There are so many more achievements we could celebrate. This is what makes Wellcome such an exciting organisation: we see glimpses of how the world’s health could be transformed in a few years, a decade, or even a century from now.”

Sustained strong growth of Wellcome’s investment portfolio has enabled the charity to double the amount it spends compared to a decade ago. Returns were good again in the last year at 6.9 per cent (4.9 per cent after inflation), but looking ahead Wellcome acknowledges that there are signs that the global financial market is slowing, suggesting the portfolio is likely to face more challenging times in years to come.

Having planned for this, Wellcome still expects to maintain an average annual spend of around £1 billion.     

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Eliza Manningham-Buller

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