Through providing funding and support to a wide range of medical research projects in Japan, AMED is facilitating medical discoveries that make life better for everyone. International reviewers have a key role to play in helping AMED achieve this goal.
The Japanese Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) is seeking international reviewers to help evaluate grant proposals from Japanese researchers. This opportunity has mutual benefits — researchers in other countries can scientifically evaluate the latest research being conducted in Japan, while AMED gains a global perspective on potential research projects, leading to better informed funding decisions. In the long term, it is hoped that these benefits will lead to even greater collaboration between Japanese and international researchers and thus advance medical research globally.
The Japanese context
Japan’s universal health system is the envy of the world, and Japanese researchers are conducting world-class medical work, as evidenced by Japan’s four Nobel laureates in the field of medicine, three of which were awarded in the past five years.
But the country is also facing some special challenges, mainly due to its super-aging population. Already more than 28% of Japan’s population is over 65 and that figure is predicted to increase to 35% by 2040. There is thus an urgent need to address age-related health problems such as cancer, heart disease, dementia, diabetes and depression. Fortunately, emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, big data, and regenerative medicine are promising for tackling these challenges. In many ways, Japan is leading the way for other aging societies that will face Japan-like demographics in the near future.
A streamlined approach to funding medical research
AMED has a key role to play in meeting these and other challenges, essentially acting as bridge between the Japanese government and medical researchers and institutes. Established in April 2015, the agency reports directly to the Prime Minister and four cabinet ministers. Crucially, AMED funding covers the entire research and development process — from initial, exploratory research to the practical application of new drugs and treatments in the real world. Prior to the establishment of AMED, researchers needed to apply for funding from different government ministries, depending on the stage of their research. Thus, AMED has streamlined the process of applying for grants by providing a single point of contact from initial research to clinical outcomes that benefit society.
AMED controls an annual budget of about 127 billion Japanese yen (approximately USD$1.2 billion). In 2019, that budget was divided among programs in nine key medical fields: drug discovery (16.8% of total budget); cancer (12.8%); regenerative medicine (11.6%); rare or intractable diseases (10.0%); medical devices (9.8%); genomic medicine (7.7%); psychiatric and neurological diseases (7.1%); translational and clinical research (7.0%); and emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases (4.5%). The remainder of the budget is assigned to other programs that do not fit neatly into these fields. AMED currently funds and supports more than 2,400 projects. In its short existence, AMED has already funded research that has made news around the world. Examples include the use of stem cells to repair the cornea in the eye, the discovery of a protein that keeps skin youthful, and the finding of a link between unhealthy microbiome in the gut and breast and colorectal cancer. This funding is not limited to research conducted in Japan: joint international projects funded by AMED are currently being undertaken in 27 countries around the world. Furthermore, many international researchers working in Japan with Japanese scientists are also recipients of AMED grants.
Creating connections and promoting outcomes
In addition to funding medical research, AMED plays two other important roles: linking organizations, institutions and researchers and promoting the practical application of research outcomes. One way it promotes collaborations with other institutions is through participation in various consortia and global alliances such as the International Rare Diseases Research Consortium, the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, and the International Human Epigenome Consortium. Another way is via its three overseas offices, which are located in Singapore, Washington DC and London. AMED has also signed memoranda of cooperation with its counterparts in six countries: the NIH in the US; the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the UK; the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in Australia; the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore; the Ministry of Health in Lithuania; and the State Research Agency (AEI) in Spain. These collaborations allow AMED to gather information from around the globe and contribute to joint international medical research and development. Its international partnerships also provide a key platform for sharing Japan’s research results with the world. In addition, the agency regularly organizes symposia and workshops in partnership with other countries, such as the Japan–UK Neuroscience Symposium 2019 and the Asia Pacific Scientific Workshop 2019.
AMED actively promotes the outcomes of the research it funds. Examples include a website dedicated to the discoveries made in the field of rare and intractable diseases (www.nanbyo-research.jp). Closely related to this is the Initiative on Rare and Undiagnosed Diseases (IRUD), which is a Japan-wide initiative to use genome information to diagnose patients with rare or undiagnosed diseases by establishing a network of participating hospitals. Furthermore, the Basis for Supporting Innovative Drug Discovery and Life Science Research (BINDS; www.binds.jp), an AMED initiative that maintains large instruments and facilities, such as cryo-electron microscopes, chemical libraries, next-generation sequencers, and makes them available to researchers who are conducting research in the life sciences that is promising for drug discovery. In addition, AMED holds press conferences to publicize important new findings.