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NIHR launches new funding competition to drive innovation in health research


The NIHR has launched a new competition that will fund research to translate lab-based discoveries into new treatments, diagnostics and medical technologies for patients.

The funding will bring together academics and doctors to translate advances in biomedical research into benefits for patients and the health system.

The new NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) funding will support partnerships between universities and NHS hospitals to drive innovation in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of ill-health.

The new centres will also act as a major component of the nation’s knowledge economy, attracting investment from the life sciences industry and making the research environment in England more competitive.

The NIHR’s sustained investment in people, facilities and technology has transformed the health and care system’s ability to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services. This infrastructure supports research funded by NIHR and by the life sciences industry, charities and other funders.

The NIHR currently funds 20 BRCs at world-leading universities and NHS organisations across England. The BRCs have played a critical step in translating early discoveries into new treatments, supporting 1,440 first in human studies over the past eight years.

The existing BRCs have developed a number of ground-breaking new treatments, such as a new treatment for children with a rare form of childhood dementia and a simpler method of diagnosing liver disease without the patient having to go to hospital.

The BRCs have boosted the nation’s economic growth by attracting research investment and supporting spin-out companies and collaborations with small- and medium-sized enterprises. More than £7.5 billion of funding has been leveraged by the BRCs over the past eight years from the life sciences industry, charities and other funders. The BRCs have launched 66 spin-out companies and 2,370 collaborations with small- and medium-sized enterprises.

The BRCs have also been pivotal in undertaking life-saving research during the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting early-stage (Phase I/II) drug studies and vaccine trials as well as and other interventions and initiatives.

For example, clinicians at the NIHR University College London Hospitals BRC collaborated with engineers at UCL and Mercedes to develop a breathing aid for patients with COVID-19 that is now available in 120 hospitals across the country. In another initiative, researchers from the NIHR Barts BRC were deployed to the London Nightingale hospital to embed a strong research ethos and ensure that admitted patients would be able to participate in potentially life-saving research.

The new BRCs funding competition will run throughout 2021, with the partnerships awarded funding to be announced in spring 2022.

The NIHR will also launch in June a competition to fund the next round of NIHR Clinical Research Facilities (CRFs). CRFs are purpose built facilities in NHS hospitals where researchers can deliver early-phase and complex clinical studies.

Examples of BRC innovations

Hope for children with rare neurodegenerative disorder - NIHR Great Ormond Street Hospital BRC

Researchers at the NIHR Great Ormond Street Hospital BRC led the UK arm of a trial for a new therapy to replace the proteins missing in children with rare neurodegenerative disorder.

Batten Disease is a rare paediatric form of dementia, diagnosed in between 30 and 50 children a year in the UK. Patients rarely live past the age of nine or ten. Children who received the new enzyme therapy showed 80% less decline in their motor and language skills one year after treatment.

The drug was approved for use on the NHS in late 2019, with 19 patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital now receiving regular therapy.

Identifying liver disease earlier and in the community - NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre

Researchers at the NIHR Nottingham BRC have reimagined the way that liver disease can be diagnosed, developing a technique that identifies patients earlier and in general practice rather than through hospital visits.

When the team began their research, liver disease was mainly diagnosed via blood tests in specialist hospital hepatology departments. These tests could often be inconclusive, which meant an uncomfortable liver biopsy.

The NIHR researchers developed a new diagnosis pathway based in primary care that uses non-invasive diagnostic tests combined with actively seeking out patients at risk of chronic liver disease from GP registers. This approach increased detection of both significant liver diseases and cirrhosis almost twofold, and detected patients who had normal levels of enzymes so their condition would not have been detected using traditional hospital approaches.

This diagnosis pathway is now available at more than 100 GP practices across four Clinical Commissioning Groups. Over 4,000 patients have had their liver disease stratified as part of this pathway and received a brief lifestyle intervention.

Life saving breathing aid to keep COVID-19 patients out of intensive care - NIHR University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre

A breathing aid that can help COVID-19 patients with serious lung infections to breathe more easily without the need to use invasive ventilators has been developed by a collaboration of engineers, industry and clinicians supported by NIHR University College London Hospitals BRC.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines are used to support patients in NHS hospitals or at home with breathing difficulties. They work by pushing an air-oxygen mix into the mouth and nose at a continuous rate, keeping airways open and increasing the amount of oxygen entering the lungs. Reports from Italy indicated that approximately 50% of patients given CPAP had avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation.

The devices and supporting kit are now used in 120 NHS hospitals after the UK government ordered 10,000 devices. The designs and manufacturing instructions have been made freely available to 1970 teams from 105 countries around the world.

Embedding COVID-19 research into the London Nightingale hospital - NIHR Barts Biomedical Research Centre

Researchers from the NIHR Barts BRC were at the forefront of establishing and delivering COVID-19 research safely at the NHS Nightingale London, joining volunteer clinical researchers or scientists from other medical areas to support research at the hospital.

The research team worked with the Nightingale architect and information and communications technology team to meet key governance requirements for research, such as access to electronic medical records and storage of study drugs within the red zone of the hospital. Standard operating procedures, terms of reference and lines of accountability were drawn up to protect both staff and patients working out of their specialist areas and in this new field environment.

The team developed a two-stage consent process for the RECOVERY Trial, where trained volunteers acted as a family liaison team who sensitively introduced the concept of research to the next of kin and established an appropriate time to discuss the study and provide the consent forms.