Trusts hoping to form academic health science centres have been set a January deadline for applications.

The tight timetable suggests only a handful of the new supertrusts will be established in the UK.

The centres are intended to be national leaders in education, research and health provision and are seen as a way to secure substantial funding.

The Department of Health this week held a meeting for those interested and set a provisional deadline of 9 January for initial applications.

There is debate over whether the number of centres should be strictly limited to a small group of national leaders or be something more trusts can aspire to, and the DH is developing an accreditation process.

Activity and quality

A panel chaired by Dundee University principal and vice chancellor Sir Alan Langlands, with representatives from leading international health science centres, will draw up a shortlist based on activity and quality in research, patient care and education.

It will look at measures such as research grants and contracts awarded, impact of work, student surveys and performance and care quality measures.

Those shortlisted will enter a second stage, where they will submit information on their vision, strategy, partnership and governance, and be interviewed by the panel. Final decisions are expected in the spring.

Some groups have set up what they are referring to as academic health science centres independently, but will still go through the accreditation process.

Tight timetable

Others may struggle to work to the timetable. South London and Maudsley foundation trust is working on a centre with Guy's and St Thomas' and King's College Hospital foundation trusts and King's College London.

Chief executive Stuart Bell said: "It's quite a tight timescale. For people who haven't already expressed an interest it won't really be possible.

"We can't really do this with serious international credibility unless there are a resonably small number of places," he added.

See Super trusts: unite and conquer