IMI is a catalyst, and our research has been a launch pad for vital research infrastructures that will drive innovation long after projects have finished
IMI’s goal is to set innovation in motion. Our funding helps scientists answer basic research questions, but it also supports the creation of infrastructure that will drive future research, long after individual consortia have disbanded.
Infrastructure, in the context of research, refers not only to physical structures, but to any kind of facility, resource or service that can be used by the wider research community, from equipment and materials to scientific data, communication networks, clinical networks and educational courses. The impetus behind our projects are just as often gaps in these resources, services and tools as they are well-documented scientific black boxes like understanding complex diseases of the immune system, or why there is a chronic lack of new treatments for Alzheimer’s.
While some sustainability plans simply need to outline how data generated during the lifetime of the project will be made available (we apply the FAIR principles to all of our data generation projects), others require a much more elaborate vision. Some of our projects are designed to jumpstart new, networked and federated systems and tools that can be used by researchers, wherever they are. Availability is key. We catalyse these innovations at considerable risk, the risk being that whatever has been built will cease to be adopted widely once the funding stops. The consortia need to outline the value proposition, with a clear idea of how they will be used and by whom. We put considerable emphasis on this in the design of each project.
Some notable successes: the European Lead Factory allows the scientific community to screen new molecules and identify new drug targets, while EBiSC offers a bank of induced pluripotent stem cells. Other infrastructures take the form of robust networks that facilitate clinical research: COMBACTE has built a network of sites that can carry out clinical trials of antimicrobial agents (as well as networks of laboratories and disease surveillance, Lab-net and Epi-Net) while the c4c project is setting up a similar network for trials of paediatric medicines.
Vital, expansive networks of clinical trial sites
These are filling a crucial gap: clinical studies carried out across multiple sites can supercharge research, but we need to be doing things in the same way according to the same standards, using master protocols in controlled, qualified and validated environments. The idea is then that future researchers come in and they plug into that infrastructure. COMBACTE, as well as the resources established in the preparedness project, ZAPI, offered a kind of proof-of-concept, and their value proposition and scalability made them perfect candidates to be included in the EU’s response to the COVID19 pandemic. These specific infrastructures can, and must be built upon further (perhaps through the new HERA initiative) if we are to be properly prepared for the next pandemic.
Education for researchers, patients and industry
In terms of education, EU member states and patient groups immediately saw the value of EUPATI, a patient education programme, and there is now a vast web of multi-lingual EUPATI-like platforms across the EU – and even one in Japan. EU2P is another hugely successful programme of educational certification in pharmacovigilance, centrally managed by the University of Bordeaux, while GetReal is setting up the same kind of service for the coming generation of researchers who will use digital devices in clinical research.
Health data systems are also being built and the same sustainability challenges need to be addressed here too. The IMI project EHR4CR is a typical example and a new not for profit legal entity has been set up called “The European Institute for Innovation through Health Data” which is funded through a variety of public and private sources.
Sustainable research infrastructures like these help reduce fragmentation and duplication of efforts in the innovation ecosystem. The big lesson learned from IMI is that, going forward, it will be even more vital to put this kind of visionary thinking at the heart of the design of new projects.