EU Innovative Health Initiative gets innovative: publishing all its draft research plans early

28 Apr 2022 | News

€2.4B programme releases “indicative” texts for its upcoming research projects in medical devices, cancer and other fields. Publishing drafts in advance will give applicants time to start building a consortium and working on proposals, IHI says

The EU’s biggest health research partnership set plans for new research projects in cancer, health data, medical devices, cardiovascular and neurogenerative diseases – and offered something of an administrative innovation by publishing its draft plans early so that would-be applicants can have plenty of time to start preparing.

In a statement 28 April, the €2.4 billion Innovative Health Initiative (IHI) – a new public-private collaboration that’s part of the EU’s flagship Horizon Europe research programme – said it plans to launch formal calls for grant applications in June on the various topics.

But, in a rarity for EU research programmes, the group published its draft, or “indicative”, texts immediately rather than waiting for all the normal bureaucratic approvals to be completed a few months down the road.

In doing so, it added a health warning: “Currently, the draft topics are under consultation with IHI’s states representatives group and science and innovation panel. It is therefore likely that the topics may change considerably between now and the call launch, and applicants should check the final, approved topic texts once the calls are launched.” IHI said it will be offering webinars and other information for would-be applicants when it finally does open applications in June.

It isn’t the first time Horizon Europe plans have been published early: at least two smaller partnerships, on metrology and digital technologies, released information last year. Still, this kind of transparency has remained a rarity in Brussels – especially for such a big a chunk of research funding. Normally, the Commission’s procedures entail months of closed-door programme-drafting before anything is published. And in that period, it’s common for the drafts to start circulating among researchers with ties to the various member state committees involved in the approval process.

The result, many complain, is that some researchers get an unfair early start in preparing their bidding consortia and grant applications. That’s especially a problem for researchers at smaller or less-well connected institutions in central and eastern Europe – and has often been cited as one of many reasons researchers in that region get only a minor fraction of the Horizon Europe funding.

The Commission’s position has been that it’s unhelpful for it to publish drafts that may change in the course of the approval process. But, as a public service, Science|Business since 2013 has been publishing, open-access, any drafts it can obtain. A collection of these is available on our home page, in “The Horizon Papers” section.

Bigger and better

The whole IHI initiative is billed as something bigger, and newer, than its predecessor programmes the Innovative Medicines Initiatives (IMI) 1 and 2, which ran from 2008 to 2020. It is a so-called Joint Undertaking, which means that the Commission delegates to a board of public and private partners the responsibility for deciding how to spend the money – in an effort to be sure that the funding decisions are well-informed by experts in both the health industry and public sector institutions.

That arrangement hasn’t been without controversy, as some critics say it gives industry too much influence over the EU research agenda.

To counter that, IHI starts with a broader membership than IMI, where the research agenda was largely directed by the heads of research of the participating pharmaceutical companies. IHI includes representatives of SMEs, medical devices, patients’ groups and other organisations, besides the pharma industry and government organisations. It also has a bigger budget of €1.2 billion over seven years from the Commission, €1 billion from industry, and €200 million from foundations and other partners.

For industry, one of the most significant calls that IHI plans is an extensive study of how to speed up the testing and trialing of new medical devices and technologies in Europe – something the medtech industry has been urging for years. In the US, for instance, a 2016 law sped up the approvals process for new medical devices by standardising a system of “early feasibility studies”. In essence, it allows a company to trial a new device or technology on a limited number of patients while the Food and Drug Administration is still reviewing its licensing plans.

American research suggested this kind of arrangement, piloted before the 2016 act, could get products to market faster without harm to health. The IHI plan includes what will doubtless be a complicated, large project to test out such a system in Europe.

On cancer, IHI said it is planning a call for proposals to update medical imaging technologies to make greater use of artificial intelligence for diagnosing and treating the disease. For that, it said, work is needed on how to network and share more imaging data to train the AI systems, without jeopardising patients’ right to privacy. IHI also plans another call to develop new cancer therapies that combine many types of treatment at once – targeting the individual genetic or phenotypic characteristics of each patient.

Another call will focus on developing decision-support computer systems to help doctors get a broader, clearer picture of the condition of a patient with a neurodegenerative disorder. It’s hoped a holistic view of a patient’s condition will lead to better treatment, rather than getting information siloed into the specialties of the medical consultants involved in each case. Yet another call will take the idea to the next level, by trying to develop digital platforms that can integrate data from many kinds of patients and diseases – helping diagnose and treat, while also opening new research avenues.

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