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Institutions Join Global Health Breakthrough Network

Networked earth

(geralt, Pixabay)

28 Jan. 2021. Some 21 institutions worldwide joined a research network that promises accelerated development of ground-breaking medical discoveries. The Wellcome Leap organization in Los Angeles aims to establish a model for faster design and development of health breakthroughs, beginning with elimination of administrative obstacles that often delay the work of researchers.

The organization was formed in 2018 by the Wellcome Trust, a health research foundation in the U.K., to create a new process for speeding much needed medical discoveries from initial concept through delivery. Wellcome Leap is modeled on the work of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, that funds ground-breaking discoveries in military-related technologies. But Darpa also brings together key stakeholders and clears away obstacles at the outset to often achieve those breakthroughs in record time.

In fact, the organization’s CEO is Regina Dugan, director of Darpa from 2009 to 2012, who joined Wellcome Leap in May 2020. Wellcome Trust staked Wellcome Leap to a fund of £250 million ($US 343 million) in 2018, but the organization is independent of the foundation.

In a Washington Post op-ed in July 2020, Dugan described the Covid-19 pandemic as a catalyzing opportunity for health research comparable to Sputnik in the 1950s. “Today, as the novel coronavirus circles the earth,” noted Dugan, “we find ourselves with the rarest of opportunities: the chance not just to defeat a virus but also to spark one of the greatest periods of advancement in science and medical history. Just as Sputnik ignited the Space Age, so, too, could the coronavirus inspire a Health Age.”

Move at pace of breakthroughs, not contracting

Wellcome Leap is assembling a global network of research institutions, beginning with 21 academic labs and research centers in the U.S., Europe, U.K., South Africa, Singapore, and New Zealand. The Leap Health Breakthrough Network uses a simplified process for getting new research and development programs underway. The process, a master academic research funding agreement, provides all terms and conditions that normally accompany funding documents, including intellectual property, ownership, and publication. Negotiating these aspects of research funding, says Wellcome Leap, can add months to the start of the actual work.

“Wellcome Leap has removed traditional obstacles to build a network that can mobilize and synchronize to solve problems in human health faster than has ever been possible,” says Dugan in an organization statement. She adds, “Science and engineering should move at the pace of breakthroughs, not the pace of contracting.”

Institutions joining the Leap Health Breakthrough Network include: Agency for Science, Technology and Research; California Institute of Technology; Carnegie Mellon University; Francis Crick Institute; Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; National University of Singapore; University of Auckland; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California San Diego; University of Cape Town; University of Dundee; University of Pittsburgh; University of São Paulo; University of Southern California; Uppsala University; Vanderbilt University; Virginia Tech; Wellcome Sanger Institute; Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering; and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

The group’s first research initiative, announced in November 2020, is seeking better models for human organs, to replace lab animals in research and offer alternatives to full organ transplants. Goals specified for the $50 million project are better working models of the immune system and engineered replacements for human organs that at least double the current five-year survival rate for patients on replacement therapies or waiting for transplants.

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