Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has launched a £30 million global cardiovascular research award, The Big Beat Challenge, which is calling leading researchers, entrepreneurs, inventors, and industry to come together and collaborate on tackling a key facet of any one of the major cardiac and circulatory diseases that kill an estimated 18 million people in the world every year.

Launched yesterday at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Munich, the Big Beat Challenge represents what BHF claims is one of the largest and most ambitious funding initiatives of its kind. “It’s a unique opportunity to support truly multidisciplinary, clinically focused R&D that could provide the breakthrough needed to solve a major cardiovascular problem,” comments Jeremy Pearson, Ph.D., emeritus professor of vascular biology at King's College London and associate medical director at BHF, speaking with GEN. “We envisage that providing a £30 million pot of funding for a single research initiative will enable truly transformative outcomes that will ultimately save thousands of patients’ lives.”

Importantly, the challenge sets no boundaries in terms of either research and technology specialty or disease area. The gauntlet thrown is thus expected to inspire cardiovascular problem solving that leads to previously unimagined endpoints. “Applicants have a completely free rein, whether their project is grounded in genome or tissue engineering, big data and artificial intelligence, or biomimetic materials and engineering,” Dr. Pearson notes. “At this stage all we can do is speculate, but we are confident that the challenge will flush out some novel and ground-breaking concepts.”

The first stage in the application process, calling for outline proposals, will be open from late 2018 until mid-2019. “We are advertising the challenge widely, and given the level of funding, we would hope for at least 70 or 80 first-stage applications,” Dr. Pearson suggests. “An internal panel of experts will then whittle these initial proposals down to about 20.”  The subsequent stage of review will involve an international panel, which is currently being assembled by BHF. “This globally representative panel of scientists and nonscientists will include entrepreneurs and key opinion leaders.” This panel will then select the most promising proposals from the 20 shortlisted.

“These final round applicants will be given a packet of funding to go away and work up a full and detailed proposal, which could take another six or nine months,” Dr. Pearson tells GEN. “During this period everyone involved in the proposed project will have the opportunity to meet and work together to fine tune the details.” The final full proposals will then be appraised by the international panel, and also peer-reviewed by global experts in fields relevant to each application.

Dr. Pearson wouldn’t be led on which areas of unmet need in the clinical cardiovascular field might be tackled through the Big Beat Challenge. “It could be anything from gene editing to cure inherited diseases, to immunizing people against atherosclerosis, using artificial intelligence to aid predictive medicine and personalized treatment, or something completely different,” he says. “The exciting thing is that we have absolutely no idea what applications will come through. It’s an unprecedented opportunity to give the brightest minds the chance to come up with and develop a lifesaving concept all the way from early R&D through to the clinic. “And even if, after £30 million in funding and five years’ of research, the project hasn’t already directly saved thousands of patients’ lives, we expect that it will at least have reached the point where we know how to do it.”

It’s this clinical focus that is key, Dr. Pearson tells GEN. “The Big Beat Challenge isn’t simply about blue-sky discovery.” It must address an area where there is a need to provide a solution that will be translated directly into patient benefits.  “We are encouraging individuals and teams with expertise in widely different disciplines — and who would possibly never normally have reason to collaborate — to come together with cardiovascular researchers and tackle something in a new, and really big way.” This goes far beyond the model of academic R&D progressing through tech transfer arms into small-scale or toe-dipping industrial development, he suggests. “This level of funding will hopefully leapfrog straight to global commercial scale-up and financial viability.”

BHF is providing the funding for the Big Beat Challenge. “We are not looking for outside investment for this particular award,” Dr. Pearson notes — but combining fundamental and translational research and development with entrepreneurial and commercial expertise will ensure that the project remains viable at scale-up to a global level and speed development through the clinic and into the market. “We are encouraging applicants to think about the scope of their partnerships and bring on board industrial partners with the requisite commercial expertise and financial foresight at an early stage. ”
 
It’s probable that over the course of the five years the winning team will find potenital answers to related and unrelated problems, Dr. Pearson suggests. Industrial involvement will help to capitalize on and expedite these follow-on development opportunities. “There may be all sorts of spin-offs. Put together a group of problem-solving people who have expertise in very diverse disciplines, and its likely that they will come up with new therapeutic concepts and ideas that no one could have envisaged at the outset.” Bring commercial expertise in at the ground floor, and the chances are that opportunities for new investment will be recognized and promoted. 

BHF hopes that by demonstrating through the Big Beat Challenge how large-scale funding can work to enable the development of globally transformative new technologies, the industry will be encouraged to put large-scale funding directly into cardiovascular R&D.  Dr. Pearson emphasizes that the BHF would be delighted if a philanthropic donor wished to be associated with the Challenge: “As a charity funded almost entirely by public donation we cannot run future Challenges, which we wish to do, without investment.”

“Solving large-scale problems in the cardiovascular field will need continued, large-scale investment,” he comments. Demonstrating that this kind of investment can ultimately impact on some of the most devastating diseases and generate commercially important, globally marketable products, tools and IP, will encourage mutually beneficial, financially very rich partnerships between industry and academia. And as Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director of BHF, remarked about the Big Beat Challenge award, “All we ask is that you think big.”