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£58.7 million funding boost for research to protect the health of the nation

Published: 27 January 2020

The NIHR has announced a £58.7 million research investment to protect the public from health threats such as antimicrobial resistance, air pollution and infectious diseases.

Since 2014, NIHR’s investment into world-class health protection research has shown how routine NHS data on consumption of antimicrobials can predict the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria, and how pragmatic steps by local authorities can reduce the risk of mental health problems in communities affected by flooding. These findings are used by Public Health England (PHE) to keep the public safe from current and emerging public health threats.

The 14 NIHR Health Protection Research Units (HPRUs) will fund high quality research that enhances the ability of PHE to use innovative techniques to protect the public’s health and minimise the health impact of emergencies.

The multidisciplinary centres of excellence, which launch in April and run for five years, will be partnerships between top universities and PHE.

The latest round of funding injects an additional £11.2m into the current HPRUs scheme and includes a new unit specialising in genomics and enabling data. Other topics that the units will specialise in include environmental change and health, hospital-associated infections and antimicrobial resistance, blood borne and sexually transmitted infections, and chemical and radiation threats and hazards.

All the HPRUs will have an additional focus on collaboration and knowledge sharing, and will play a pivotal role in maintaining and growing PHE’s scientific expertise and future workforce. The new units will also deliver responsive research to tackle emerging or potential public health emergencies.

In addition to the new units, the NIHR has granted a £1 million development award to the University of Leicester in partnership with PHE to investigate the effect of environmental exposures on health. This award sits alongside the HPRU in this area and will build capability and broaden the field.

Health Minister Nicola Blackwood said:

“The UK’s achievements in public health to date have saved the lives of millions of people. This would have been impossible without world-leading research conducted by some of the brightest minds up and down the country.

“The latest round of NIHR’s Health Protection Research Units, which have previously played a pivotal role in responding to major events such as the Novichok and Ebola incidents, will continue to protect the health of the public and reduce inequalities – helping us all live healthier lives.”

Prof Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at PHE, said:

“Tackling major public health threats such as antimicrobial resistance, emerging infections and air pollution requires innovative, collaborative research. Our partnerships with leading universities play a critical role in building the science that keeps us safe – not just from current threats, but the health challenges of tomorrow.”

Examples of research from existing HPRUs

Research from the NIHR HPRU in Healthcare Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance at Imperial College London has shown that routine NHS data on drug consumption can help forecast emergence of bacteria that produce carbapenemase, an enzyme that renders penicillin and other common antibiotics ineffective. Carbapenemase-producing bacteria are dangerous because they are resistant to strong antimicrobials of ‘last resort’ and cause infection in vulnerable patients in hospital, whose ability to fight infection is low. This HRPU also has assessed strategies for controlling carbapenemase-producing bacteria, including national screening and isolation, and has undertaken economic analyses of outbreak control in the NHS.

The NIHR HPRU in Evaluation of Interventions at University of Bristol, NIHR HPRU in Emergency Preparedness and Response at King’s College London, and NIHR HPRU in Environmental Change and Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have collaborated on research to prevent or reduce mental health problems in people affected by flooding. Their work has shown that commissioners and service providers should prepare for a substantial mental health burden in communities affected by flooding, and that responders can help to reduce this burden through several pragmatic steps in the immediate aftermath of a flood. This information is being used by local government and government agencies to plan for flooding events.

The NIHR HPRU in Health Impacts of Environmental Hazards at King’s College London found evidence to show that the health effects of nitrogen dioxide itself, or closely associated traffic pollutants, are being underestimated. They found that calculations using this traffic-specific variable were subject to greater measurement error than analyses using particulate matter, a more generic air pollution variable. Their work helps support the case for a reduction in traffic pollution.

 Research areas and institutions of new HPRUs

  • Environmental Change and Health: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
  • Environmental Exposures and Health: Imperial College London
  • Environmental Exposures and Health: University of Leicester (development award)
  • Chemical and Radiation Threats and Hazards: Imperial College London
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response: Kings College London
  • Emerging and Zoonotic Infections: University of Liverpool
  • Blood Borne and Sexually Transmitted Infections: University College London
  • Respiratory Infections: Imperial College London
  • Gastrointestinal Infections: University of Liverpool
  • Healthcare Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance: Imperial College London
  • Healthcare Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance: University of Oxford
  • Vaccines and Immunisation: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
  • Behavioural Science and Evaluation: University of Bristol
  • Genomics and Enabling Data: University of Warwick
  • Modelling and Health Economics: Imperial College London


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