10 ideas we fund that might surprise you

Research can help to improve health in many different ways, which is why Wellcome funds a broad range of people and projects. Here are just 10 of the great ideas we’re supporting right now.

Illustration of Marcel Dicke looking at a large plate of crickets

Credit: Mitch Blunt for Wellcome. CC BY

We're celebrating some of the great ideas supported by Wellcome. Marcel Dicke is exploring the potential of insects as sustainable and healthy food.

We think you’ll be surprised by at least one or two ideas in this list. If your interest is piqued, watch each researcher explain their work in 60 seconds.

1. Improving animal health to help humans

When the bluetongue virus infects a herd of sheep, goats or cows, only some of the infected animals get sick and die. Understanding why could help farmers deal with the disease more effectively.

Massimo Palmarini is Director of the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research. He has a Wellcome Investigator Award to investigate bluetongue virus.

Understanding an animal infection like bluetongue could help us tackle related viruses, like Zika and chikungunya, that infect people.

Watch Massimo explain the connections between human and animal health.

2. Learning from the liver how to regenerate

The liver is a fascinating organ, not least because it can grow back after injury or surgery. If we knew how it recognises that it’s damaged, and how it regenerates, could we use that knowledge to help treat diseases like liver cancer?

Rather than studying real livers, or cells grown in a flat dish, Meri Huch has managed to create small liver organoids. These are groups of cells, grown in 3D, that are able to recreate the important structures and behaviours of the real-life organ. Her work at the University of Cambridge is funded through a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship

Find out more about your amazing liver in Meri’s video.

3. A pharmaceutical fix for drug resistance

Drug-resistant infections is a priority area for Wellcome. We need new antibiotics, and we need to look after the ones we have more carefully. But every time we take an antibiotic, it risks promoting the development of resistant genes in our gut bacteria.

Ryan Donnelly is Professor of Pharmaceutical Technology at Queen’s University Belfast, and has a Wellcome Collaborative Award to develop microneedles for delivering antibiotics across the skin.

If successful, it will mean we have a way of taking new and existing antibiotics – and other drugs – that is as simple as a pill but doesn’t ever go through the gut.

Watch Ryan describe how microneedles work.

4. Supporting nurses in moral distress

Georgina Morley is a bedside critical care nurse at Barts Heart Centre in London, and a PhD student studying moral distress in nursing at the Centre for Ethics in Medicine at Bristol University.

Her PhD, funded through a Wellcome Research Award for Health Professionals, involves interviewing critical care nurses from two NHS hospitals to understand their experiences of moral distress and ethical issues they encounter while carrying out clinical care.

Research suggests that moral distress is associated with ‘compassion fatigue’, which can affect the quality of patient care and cause nurses to leave their jobs.

Georgina tells us why it’s vital to support nurses if we want them to stay in the health service. 

5. Network analysis to improve mental health diagnoses

Can we improve the way mental disorders are classified? At the moment, people with the same symptoms can get different diagnoses, while those with different symptoms can get the same diagnosis. And, of course, people can experience symptoms of more than one disorder at a time.

Knowing how such symptoms relate to each other, and how they develop through childhood, could help to improve psychiatric classification and eventually help treat people more effectively.

At the University of Liverpool, Praveetha Patalay has a Seed Award in Science, which she is using to test whether network analysis can help to unpick the complex interactions between different mental health symptoms.

Watch Praveetha explain how much there is still to learn about mental health.

6. Modelling maths to beat bacteria

Meriem El Karoui, a Wellcome Investigator at the University of Edinburgh, uses sophisticated maths to test theories about how bacteria develop tolerance to antibiotics.

Differences between her mathematical models and her experimental results point to where new discoveries and understanding are needed. This kind of new knowledge could lead to faster and better ways to treat people, and limit the rise of antibiotic resistance. 

Watch Meriem confess just how much she loves bacteria – and maths.

7. From eyeball injections to eye drops for sight loss

Each year, 26,000 people in the UK develop wet age-related macular degeneration (wAMD). This is a condition in which blood vessels grow where they shouldn’t at the back of the eye. The result is that your central vision slowly erodes in a fog of smoky greyness. Current treatment involves the injection of a drug directly into the eyeball once a month.

Exonate, based in Cambridge and Nottingham, have a Seeding Drug Discovery Award from Wellcome’s Innovations team to optimise a new drug for wet AMD. Their drug targets a protein to switch off the growth of blood vessels in the eye, which should stop further sight loss. It will also be in the form of eye drops, avoiding all those injections.

Watch Exonate’s Chief Executive Catherine Beech and Chief Scientific Officer David Bates explain the science and its potential impact.

8. Making a meal of mini-livestock (aka insects)

Feeding the world a healthy diet without destroying the planet is a big challenge for the 21st century. We almost certainly have to eat less meat, which is far more damaging to both people and the environment than a plant-based diet. But how will we get all the protein and micronutrients, like zinc and iron, that we need?

Marcel Dicke, at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has been funded through Our Planet, Our Health to lead a collaboration exploring the potential of insects as sustainable and healthy food. 

Learn how researchers are finding out whether the iron in crickets gets taken up when people eat them.

9. Food poverty and health in the UK

How will the growing use of food banks affect the UK’s future health? Claire Thompson, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is exploring this question through a Wellcome Research Fellowship in Humanities and Social Sciences.

She is interviewing food bank users, organisers and volunteers, as well as speaking to the health and social service professionals who refer people to food banks.

In the UK, food banks are run by charities rather than the state. Claire’s research will investigate how food banks work in practice, define more clearly the health challenges of food poverty, and inform future policies so that everyone has access to a healthy and nutritious diet.

Claire explains why the increasing use of food banks is such an important issue for the UK today.

10. Population data for mental health planning

Looking at large groups of people over long periods of time is helping to develop a better understanding of how schizophrenia and other serious mental health conditions develop, and who is most at risk.

James Kirkbride has a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from Wellcome for his research at University College London. He uses data collected from people throughout their lives to identify environmental risk factors for schizophrenia, such as urban lifestyles, migration and ethnicity. For example, he has found that refugees are at higher risk compared with other people who have migrated from the same countries.

Watch James explain how his research helps mental health services plan better for the different needs of different population groups.

These 10 projects are a fraction of the thousands of researchers in the UK and around the world whose work is funded by Wellcome. Our support helps them to generate new knowledge, explore what good health means, and create better ways to study, treat and prevent disease.

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