An unusual characteristic of the UK’s healthcare landscape is that charities fund the vast majority of medical research.  According to the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), in 2017, 8 million people donated to medical research charities which funded £1.6bn in research and accounted for 47% of all publicly-funded medical research in the UK.

UK charities income is generated by individual donations, legacies left behind and from the incredibly British model of the charity shop.

Here are 5 of the most influential UK research charities that are doing the most to overcome some of humanities biggest health challenges.



British Heart Foundation

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) pours over £100 million into research each year for heart/circulatory related diseases and their causes and is the largest independent funder of cardiovascular research.

The BHF was founded in 1961 by a group of medical professionals concerned about the increasing death rate from cardiovascular disease. They wanted to fund extra research into the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of heart and circulatory diseases.

In 2018 BHF received £108.4m in medical research grants, £83.4m left in legacies, £53.0m from public fundraising activities, £27.7m from the 727 BHF shops across the UK and £4.6m in eBay and online sales.

The BHF is currently lead by Simon Gillespie who joined as CEO in April 2013.

Read our 2018 interview with Gillespie.


Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is the world’s largest cancer charity. Their story began in 1902 with the founding of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, focusing on laboratory work to find new approaches to treating cancer. In 1970, The Cancer Research Campaign was formed to focus on testing new cancer treatments in patients.

CRUK supports research into all types of cancer, from understanding the biology and causes of cancer to investigating how to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease. The charity funds over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses who are leading the work that has already seen cancer survival rates in the UK double in the last forty years.

CRUK’s ambition is to “accelerate progress and by 2034 see 3 in 4 people surviving cancer.”

In 2017/18, CRUK received £634 million in underlying income of which £423 million was spent on research and £104 million was spent on understanding cancer’s underlying biology. 12,000 patients were also enrolled in clinical trials.

In November 2018 Michell Mitchell OBE became Cancer Research’s first female CEO.


Wellcome Trust

Sir Henry Wellcome was a medical entrepreneur, collector and philanthropist. He died in 1936 and his will established a charity for “the advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind’s wellbeing.” From there, Wellcome Trust was born.

The trust funds a vast array of research areas including: Ageing,  Blood,  Cancer,  Cardiovascular,  Child health,  Congenital disorders,  Ear,  Eye,  End of life care,  Infection,  Inflammatory and immune system,  Injuries and accidents,  Mental health,  Metabolic and endocrine,  Musculoskeletal,  Neurological,  Oral and gastrointestinal,  Renal and urogenital,  Reproductive health and childbirth,  Respiratory,  Skin,  Stroke,  Generic health relevance.

The charity’s main asset was the share capital of Sir Henry’s company, Wellcome Foundation.

In 1986 the Wellcome Foundation was floated on the stock market under a new name: Wellcome plc. The Wellcome Trust sold a quarter of its holdings in the company.

This was followed by a second share sale in 1992. Then, in 1995, the Wellcome Trust sold most of the remaining interest in Wellcome plc to Glaxo plc. This created Glaxo Wellcome plc, which merged with SmithKlineBeecham in 2000 to create GlaxoSmithKline.

By selling the shares, the Wellcome Trust’s assets grew from £3.4bn in 1988 to £15bn in 2000. The Trust’s average annual charitable spend grew from £28m in the 1980s to £650m in 2007.

By September 2016, the Wellcome Trust’s investment portfolio was worth £20.9 billion.

As of 2013, the Trust is directed by Sir Jeremy James Farrar OBE FRCP FRS FMedSci, and Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller became the chair in 2015.


Versus Arthritis

In 2017, Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care merged to pursue their common goal of tackling arthritis and in September 2018 Versus Arthritis was born.

Their primary research areas are inflammatory, immune system and musculoskeletal disorders. Additional research areas include — Ageing,  cardiovascular,  child health,  eye,  mental health,  respiratory,  skin and generic health relevance.

According to their 2017 report 400,000 people live with rheumatoid arthritis in the UK and the NHS spends £1.9 billion in hospital costs for hip fracture alone.

In 2017 Versus Arthritis funded £126m in research grants supporting work at more than 70 institutions across the UK.

Liam O’ Toole is Versus Arthritis’ CEO as of November 2009.


Alzheimer’s Research UK

Alzheimer’s Research UK  (ARUK) is one of the UK’s leading dementia research charities dedicated to causes, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and cure.

Alzheimer’s Research UK was founded in 1992 as the Alzheimer’s Research Trust. Early work in establishing the charity and bringing in their original trustees and scientists was spearheaded by Dr Sarah-Jane Richards and Barbara Langlois along with Joe Pollock and Dr Martin Weale with support from Kings College London. Shocked by the lack of investment in dementia research, this small team set out to fund the building of a dedicated research centre in Cambridge.

Between September 2017 and March 2018  ARUK received £17.3 million in donations and they committed £15.5 milli0n towards charitable activities of which £13.1 million was put directly into research.

Big on innovation and new tech to tackle Alzheimer’s,  in 2016 ARUK joined forces with Deutsche Telekom to launch Sea Hero Quest, a smartphone game where two minutes of play equates to five hours of dementia research. This fun game was designed to help researchers learn more about spatial navigation to inform new diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s. It has now had over 2.7 million players, generating over 9,400 years’ worth of dementia research!

In the same year, ARUK become a founding funder of the UK Dementia Research Institute, a landmark £250m investment in dementia research.

In December 2018 ARUK announced that they were to receive a government-led boost of up to £79m for research into the early detection of diseases. The programme will bring together the NHS, industry, leading charities including Alzheimer’s Research UK, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.

In 2018 we interviewed Hilary Evans, ARUK’s CEO since 2013.