Understanding and improving health

We support researchers across the world to explore fundamental questions about health and disease, and to turn great ideas and discoveries into new technologies, treatments and diagnostics.

Biomedical science research 

We want to understand the processes underpinning life, and what happens when those processes go wrong.

Our areas of research include:

  • genetics, genomics and molecular biology: understanding how genes, proteins and other molecules work together to perform the functions of life and what happens when these functions go wrong
  • infectious disease and the immune system: from endemic and epidemic infections, such as malaria and Zika, to the role of the immune system in health and disease
  • cell and developmental biology: how cells function and interact with their environment, and how organisms form, grow and develop
  • physiology and non-communicable disease: how the human body works, and the mechanisms of diseases such as diabetes, obesity and stroke
  • neuroscience and mental health: understanding the brain and mind, and investigating conditions such as dementia, depression and schizophrenia.

See a list of our funding schemes that support biomedical science research.

How we fund

Most of our funding in biomedical science and population health goes to individuals and teams asking questions which have the potential to address a major health need.

We increase the impact of this funding by supporting:

Population health research 

We want to understand the causes and consequences of health and disease in populations. We also want to determine how good health and poor health are distributed through populations. 

Population health involves researchers from many different disciplines, such as epidemiologists, demographers, health economists and sociologists.

Our areas of research include:

  • studying how infectious diseases are distributed and transmitted in populations
  • supporting longitudinal population studies, which follow individuals over long periods of time
  • improving healthcare systems and education
  • helping translate research into real-world changes that improve people's lives.

See a list of our funding schemes that support population health research.

One of our priority areas is climate and health. It supports research into how we’re changing our environment and how these changes affect our health.

Humanities and social science research 

Science research alone can’t always improve people’s health. Social, historical, ethical and cultural factors also shape how people experience health.

We support research in humanities and social science, spanning a wide range of disciplines and using diverse methods to investigate a mind-blowing breadth of topics.

We encourage collaboration and the sharing of ideas. By working together, humanities and social science researchers, healthcare professionals and scientists can find new ways to think about health and overcome challenges.

See a list of our funding schemes that support humanities and social science research.

New health products and treatments 

We’ve funded hundreds of innovations in these areas:

  • drugs or other medicines
  • devices
  • diagnostic tests
  • interventions that can change patients’ behaviours.

We’re able to take the long view. We expect it might take at least five to 20 years for some of these innovations to have a significant impact on health.

Some of the work we’ve supported is already having an impact. For example:

  • A simple-to-use device that generates a high-quality image of the retina. This is helping to diagnose thousands of patients at risk of developing eye disease.
  • An affordable, portable machine that solves issues caused by testing blood in hot, humid, dusty conditions. It enables rapid diagnosis of HIV in newborns in Africa.
  • Online cognitive therapy for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. This gives large numbers of people with mental health problems access to psychological treatment.
  • Faster genetic tests to support pioneering work in the UK Mainstreaming Cancer Genetics programme. This programme aims to make genetic testing a routine part of cancer diagnostics.

Clinical research 

Clinical research directly involves people as subjects or participants in trials, or the use of human cells and tissue.

We’ve helped to change the way that clinical research is done in the UK by making it easier.

Working with the NHS and government, we’ve established clinical research facilities around the country. These provide the infrastructure for researchers and other staff from universities and the NHS to collaborate on research that informs and improves patient care.

We’ve also supported researchers with great ideas. For example:

  • Sadaf Farooqi’s research into the genetics, physiology and neuroscience of severely obese patients. This is leading to improved diagnostics for children with obesity, as well as a treatment for some genetic conditions.
  • Adrian Thrasher and Bobby Gaspar at the UCL Institute of Child Health developed gene therapies for children with such severely compromised immune systems that they're always in danger of infection. The success of these treatments has meant many children can take part in everyday activities for the first time.
  • Scott O’Neill and his team at the Eliminate Dengue programme have run randomised clinical trials in South East Asia and Latin America. This work, co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shows promising early signs of reducing dengue fever.

Public health interventions 

So much of good health isn’t down to a medication or treatment. It’s about knowing how best to stay healthy.

These are just a few of the innovations we’ve funded in this area:

  • Work to eradicate malaria has led to a range of initiatives, from insecticide-treated bednets that stop mosquito transmission, to a simple programme to promote good hand-washing.
  • Liz Corbett’s work on screening for TB in HIV+ people in Malawi led to WHO recommendations for TB screening, a policy that could save half a million lives.
  • Sharon Peacock and her team are using genome sequencing technologies to develop public health surveillance mechanisms that can quickly and effectively track disease trends and identify new threats.
  • Mary Dixon-Woods’ work on the ethics of healthcare organisation and delivery was widely cited in the UK government’s response to the public inquiry into failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. Mary was also a member of the US National Patient Safety Foundation group on patient safety.

How we support research careers 

We work in many ways to support careers in research. For example, we promote good research practice, work towards a more diverse research culture and provide flexible career opportunities.

Find out more about how we support research careers.