Professor Dion Morton, consultant surgeon and director of the Birmingham Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC)

Supporting innovation in research


Professor Dion Morton, consultant surgeon and director of the Birmingham Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC)

Date: 16 August 2017

Before 2006, patient-based research in the NHS was conducted and funded through a range of ad hoc programmes and schemes managed by the Department of Health. The NIHR was an innovative new concept - a whole health research system designed to transform research in the NHS.

The breadth of funding opportunities available through the NIHR and the joined up nature of its research system support leading-edge scientific research and drive faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients. My career in experimental cancer research has been facilitated by a number of different NIHR structures and schemes. 

Innovative structures
The NIHR-supported Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMCs) are an innovative structure that encourages link ups between universities and hospitals and drives the discovery, development and testing of new treatments to combat cancer.

Bridging the gap between universities and hospitals is essential to facilitate the movement of ideas at the bench into patient benefit. The ECMC structure, both at a management and practical delivery level, overcomes many of the hurdles in this process. It also allows individual centres, such as the Birmingham ECMC, to pilot new initiatives, by establishing the appropriate expertise and experience to facilitate translation.

The ECMCs don’t just link the bench to the bedside. In fact, many of the advances in the ECMCs are coming from ‘reverse translation’. We are taking patients’ clinical information and samples back to the laboratory to see how they can be further interrogated, with the aim of informing new therapies and better patient selection for existing therapies.

This stratification of patients into groups that will benefit from one treatment over another is perhaps the biggest development in medical care today. The ECMCs have had a central role in enabling these studies to be performed, through supporting the development of the biorepository structures and the concurrent collection of critical patient data.

Innovative collaborations
Developing international networks to deliver randomised controlled trials is time consuming and often demanding, due to the many regulations and hurdles that need to be overcome. However, the freedom provided by an NIHR Senior Investigator award, which I hold, has enabled us to bring in partners from Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Holland to join NIHR portfolio studies in the UK as international partners.

This has obvious benefits in terms of patient recruitment, but the main benefit is in terms of accelerated dissemination and uptake of best practice, so that people start learning from each other and thereby implement improvements in clinical care. For example, the ROSSINI 2 study that we are nurturing will allow surgical practice to evolve and improve on an international platform. Ultimately, the generalisability of these results improves their impact and the way patients benefit.

Innovative clinical initiatives
Perhaps the greatest innovation created by the NIHR is the embedding of clinical research into clinical practice as a part of routine care. That expertise is now well established across the country. More recently, we have recognised that this expertise can be developed in other countries with differing health sector providers.

At the University of Birmingham, we are currently looking to take our surgical research expertise from the UK and translate this into establishing and sustaining research centres across low-middle income countries. Through the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Global Surgery, we are seeking to setup up to 10 research centres across the world.

We will not be exporting research findings to other countries, but establishing expertise that will allow the development of the most appropriate surgery for their patients in their settings and their communities. We in the UK will also be learning from research findings across the globe and finding applicability in our own communities, so there may be a substantial positive benefit for NHS patients too.

The NIHR’s willingness to support innovative initiatives and research has enabled myself and colleagues alike to generate and disseminate research findings and build expertise for the benefit of patients, not only in the UK but across Europe but most recently at a global level. And its support for collaborations is central to the resulting innovation and patient benefit.

*Dion Morton is a consultant surgeon and is director of the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) at the University of Birmingham. The ECMC Network was launched in 2007 through a joint investment of £70 million from Cancer Research UK, the National Institute for Health Research in England, and the Health Departments for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Prof Morton is also director of Clinical Research at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and chairman of the European Society of Coloproctology research committee.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.
  • Summary:
    Dion Morton outlines how the NIHR health research system has supported innovative research in his area of cancer surgery and driven improvements in research expertise at home and abroad. His blog is the latest in our #WeAreNIHR series.
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    Professor Dion Morton, consultant surgeon and director of the Birmingham Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC)

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