Every year, with the sole mission of finding the cure for spinal cord injury, we fund research projects around the globe. All these projects need to go through an extensive selection process, so we can invest your money as well as we possibly can. Our scientific coordinator, Dr Rosi Lederer, gives us, here, an insight into how this works, in which countries research is taking place and why your support is so valuable.
How does Wings for Life decide which research projects receive funding?
This is a multi-level process. First, scientists complete a Wings for Life research grant application form, which requests a summary of their research project. This is called the executive summary. This summary includes the project’s hypothesis (a proposed idea), as well as preliminary data for the research project. These executive summaries help Wings for Life make their first decisions. We ask questions such as: Which projects have new research ideas? Which projects are in line with our vision? Which are not?
Do these applications come from all over the world?
We get most applications from the USA, Canada and Europe, which is where many of the research institutes are based. These places are where researchers from all over the world come together. We also, less frequently, receive applications from South America, Asia and Australia.
How many grant requests do you receive every year?
Each year there are more and more, but, in general, we receive 250 executive summaries annually.
250 new project requests a year? That seems a lot...
It may seem a lot, but when you think of how much needs to be investigated in spinal cord research, the number of applications does not seem that high. Example research areas include the nature of acute injury itself, the effects of secondary damage, axon regeneration and the understanding of glial scaring and stem cells. There are many open-ended questions.
Back to the selection process: What happens next?
Within the executive summary process, we sort the applications by project theme. For example, into stem cell applications or projects that focus on electrical stimulation. This helps us to identify whether each researcher’s themes and issues are new or not. We also examine how the project could be clinically relevant, meaning does it have the potential to lead to real treatment or is there relevant application for the patient. This is very important for us.
So then you create a short list, do you?
Yes. We review each application again, and shortlist for the next stage those research projects we think will take spinal cord research one step further. Generally from the 250 executive summaries, we select about 70 to 80 each year. By early October, we invite the successful research applicants to provide a full proposal of their research project – this is called a full grant application.
What is a full grant application?
Submitted to Wings for Life by the first week of November, it’s a ten-page document, plus appendices, that describes the project in detail. Also included is any preliminary data, all previous scientific findings and an explanation of how the researcher will examine the underlying question or hypothesis. In the proposal, they must also prove that the project laboratory has sufficient expertise as well as the capacity for the project to continue for two to three years.
What happens with the full grant applications?
My colleague Dr Verena May, our scientific director, Prof. Jan Schwab and I read them, then we need each application to be evaluated by at least two independent experts. These experts comment on the feasibility, scientific quality and importance of the project for the respective field of research. These evaluations help us to rank the project proposals. Following this, we create a summary of the projects and independent reviewers’ opinions for our scientific advisory board.
What does the scientific advisory board do with the grant applications?
They evaluate the projects again, taking all opinions into account. By the end of February, we get their feedback. Then our executive board and scientific directors sit down for the decision meeting. In this meeting, with all available expert opinions, we decide which research projects will be funded by Wings for Life.
How many research projects are funded annually?
This figure varies. On the one hand, it depends partly on the quality of the research projects, and on the other, it depends on the financial resources available to us. The more donations Wings for Life receives, the more projects we are able to support financially. In general, we encourage 15-20 new projects annually, but remember, there are other ongoing projects, in their second or third year, that we continue to support.
How much does a project cost?
Generally, basic research (such as work in a laboratory), receives a maximum financial support of 100,000 euros per year per project. A clinical study, however, will cost several million euros per year. Having said that, these amounts do vary greatly as they depend on various factors, such as the amount requested by the project manager and what phase the project is in.
After project selection, what happens next?
After all pre-conditions, such as official permits, have been met, we arrange a contract with the researchers and their institutions. After that, the work in the laboratories and clinics can start. At the same time, we post descriptions of the new projects on our website, so everyone interested is able to stay up to date.
When do you get the first results?
After 18 months, researchers send a detailed interim report stating what results they have achieved so far and whether everything is going according to plan. Based on this, our experts can assess if the project is on track and decide whether further support is justified. When a project is fully completed, the researchers publish their results for the entire scientific community to share. This ensures that no work is duplicated.
How many research projects has Wings for Life funded so far?
To date, we have supported 142 research projects and clinical trials. Currently there are 33 projects underway. Some are new and some are in their second and/or third years. In our decision meeting now we have accepted new projects for funding.