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The future of clinical research: building on success

The UK’s health and research staff should look back on the last year with a huge sense of pride. More than a million people recruited into priority COVID studies. Identification of effective therapeutics. Development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Global first recruitments, newspaper headlines and new records set for recruitment into trials have come thick and fast, all against a backdrop of a health system responding to unprecedented pressure. Never before has the pivotal role of clinical research in underpinning our health system and public policy been so widely appreciated by the general public as well as decision-makers. It has offered hope for the nation for a way out of a truly terrible year.

Starting from this position of strength, we need to look at how we can take the important, potentially game-changing learnings from COVID and apply them more broadly, so that they extend into every disease area and to every patient. This is the purpose of the ambitious vision being launched this week, for the future of clinical research delivery in the UK. The vision sets out how we need to recover and grow a more resilient research system. Achieving this will confirm our world-leading position for clinical research and the life sciences sector as a whole.

One of the areas that I’m most proud is the sense of collective mission and collaboration that we’ve seen over the last year. Across the UK, we’ve seen staff from across the whole health system pull together with researchers and with members of the public to support research. Healthcare staff who had never considered themselves as part of the research system have, for the first time, been talking to, recruiting and supporting patients in studies. Half a million people have signed up to the NHS vaccine registry - demonstrating their willingness to be contacted for research. We’ve seen an unparalleled enthusiasm from members of the public to get involved, give their time and take part in research. Support for COVID research has come from every part of the system - from GP surgeries and care homes to hospitals and people’s homes. Importantly, we have seen hospitals with comparatively little experience of research, embrace the value of carefully conducted studies and trials to provide vital evidence for patient care.

This success is based on one key asset, a national health research system that sits alongside the NHS, anywhere and everywhere. If we can harness the capacity and capability across the nation, it offers us a huge opportunity to transform the way we deliver clinical research across the country.

With thankfully falling caseloads, we can now transition our learnings and enthusiasm to improve research into other conditions, many of which have not had their deserved attention over the last year. We are now in a much stronger position, with more health professionals and members of the public willing to get involved. No longer is research seen as a niche interest for specialisms like cancer, or as something which takes place only in our world-renowned teaching hospitals. Research is now truly seen as something that can be a routine part of clinical care for all, wherever you live and work.

The spotlight is very much on the UK’s research expertise and track record, offering increasing potential to be seen as a globally-leading destination for life sciences inward investment. We’ve also seen the strength of partnerships between our academic institutions, the NHS and the life sciences industry, supported by the NIHR, most notably through the Oxford/AZ vaccine. Working with our established UK vaccine research teams, and enabling participation across the UK, we were able to support the Novavax trial, the largest vaccine trial ever to take place in the UK, recruiting in just two months, contributing nearly half of global recruits, and recruiting the first participant in the world.

Our experience over the last year has shown that clinical research is a core part of an innovative and forward thinking health and care system and that embedding clinical research within the NHS is achievable and delivers both for patients as well as for the NHS. Through implementation of this vision we will make the UK one of the best places in the world to conduct clinical research, empower all healthcare professionals to become involved in research and ultimately improve care and benefit patients across the country.

Dr William van’t Hoff is the Chief Executive Officer at the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) Coordinating Centre. 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.