Investment in university research ‘vital’

UNIVERSITY researchers need to be supported and funding maintained if the NHS is to benefit from innovative new technologies that can help secure efficiencies and save lives, a new report warns.

Jointly published by Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Universities UK, Big Ideas for the Future pulls together the leading research projects currently taking place across UK universities, singling out those expected to make the biggest impact on healthcare outcomes going forward. They include:

  • Researchers led by Dr Kerstin Dautenhahn at the University of Hertfordshire have developed Kinesics and Sychronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics (KASPAR); an interactive humanoid robot which is used as a therapeutic toy to help children with autism. With simple human movements and expressions, the robot acts as a mediator, encouraging children to communicate with people. So far it has been tested among 300 youngsters and parents and teachers have seen a marked improvement. The report states: " This research has the potential to transform the social and educational development of children living with autism in the future."
  • The Cognitive Science and Systems group, split between the University of Oxford and London's Royal Free Hospital, is a small team that is building software systems to support clinical decision-making and patient care. The team's main project is CREDO, which uses technology to assess patients' circumstances and recommend appropriate care. Clinicians can add data to a patient profile, from test results to images and current treatment regimes. The software then analyses the current situation against clinical guidelines to suggest the most suitable course of action. The report states: "This technology will help time-pressed doctors decide on the best course of treatment and could potentially transform patient care across the UK and around the world."
  • Researchers at the University of Oxford are looking to produce an oral insulin tablet to replace injections for patients with neonatal diabetes
  • Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College London and researchers at the University of Oxford have been carrying out a study showing the success of a cooling treatment for birth asphyxia. The Total Body Hypothermia for Neonatal Encephalopathy Study (TOBY) has recently proven that cooling a suffering baby to 33°C for a number of days after birth is the only medical intervention that reduces brain damage and improves an infant's chances of normal survival after birth asphyxia. This new treatment has already begun to have an impact in hospitals in the UK and could change forever the way birth asphyxia is treated. Dr Eleri Adams, clinical director of the neonatal unit at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, said: "As a result of this work, therapeutic hypothermia is now a standard part of treatment for newborn infants with severe hypoxic brain injury, significantly improving the chances of a normal neurological outcome."
  • As part of a National Institute for Health Research Collaborative Leadership in Applied Research and Care programme, researchers from the universities of Leeds and York and Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust are collecting data on the care of patients admitted to hospital with stroke. This information will then be used to investigate clinical practice and service variations with a view to identifying measurable improvements in services
  • Researchers at the University of the West of England are investigating a rapid screening test that will predict how a patient will respond to cancer chemotherapy within hours. The research is seeking to solve the problem of why some patients do not respond to chemotherapy treatment first time round
  • Researchers at Durham University are looking into computerised home-based technology for patients with visual field defects following brain injury such as a stroke. The computerised training teaches patients how to compensate for their visual deficits by making more efficient eye movements during exploration and reading tasks. The new home-based version of the training is low-cost and user-friendly as is administrated by patients themselves in their own homes. The report states: "If the research reveals the computerised home-based training is an effective form of rehabilitation for patients with visual field defects, such an intervention could transform the lives of many patients with partial blindness at little cost to the NHS."
  • Researchers led by Professor Zulfiqur Ali at Teesside University are developing a portable device that can diagnose DVT earlier and help save lives. The device will be easy to operate by non-specialists and can be used in a wide range of locations such as a GP surgery, in an accident and emergency department or by a paramedic on call. It works by taking a small drop of blood, which is put into a disposable cartridge. The cartridge is then placed into a reader device which measures the concentration of a d-dimer molecule which is present in blood and signals if a DVT condition is present
  • A group of researchers at the University of Leeds are setting out to develop a virtual reality microscope that will transform the use of digital slides in the delivery of patient care. The new device will allow increase the speed at which diseases are diagnosed and remove the risk of patient slides getting mixed up
  • Researchers at Moorfields Eye Hospital, University College London and City University London have developed a flexible software programme known as The Moorfields Motion Displacement Test (MMDT), which provides a test of the field of vision for the detection of glaucoma. The report states: "The simplicity of the test means it is easily understood by patients. It is designed to be performed without glasses and is resistant to cataract. These features make it an excellent future screening tool."

But, the report stresses, none of these projects would be possible if funding was not made available and universities supported in their efforts to invent new solutions.

Commenting on the importance of ongoing research, despite the current public sector cutbacks, Professor Lord Robert Winston, a TV personality and world-renowned fertility expert, said: " If the UK is to remain at the forefront of international health research, support for our universities is vital. The decision to invest public money in health and wellbeing should be easy to make, even in times when budgets are severely threatened. So many lives can be changed by university researchers and our bright young scientists must be supported if we are to see the different world which they hope to help shape.

"It is not merely a matter of empty pride that we should wish to be at the international forefront. This country has a critical role in ensuring the healthy future of our own children, as well as the health of many humans around the globe."

The decision to invest public money in health and wellbeing should be easy to make, even in times when budgets are severely threatened. So many lives can be changed by university researchers and our bright young scientists must be supported if we are to see the different world which they hope to help shape

In his foreword, businessman, Lord Bilimoria, president of the UK India Business Council and an independent crossbench peer in the House of Lords, added: "With challenges facing society, such as an ageing population, increasing obesity levels, and the impact of climate change, we need to be investing in initiatives that will help tackle these issues."

The call for continued support is being echoed by the researchers themselves. Dr Gay Mary Verdon-Roe, senior research fellow working on the Moorfields MDT project, said "The MMDT is a good example of translational research, where universities work together to improve the standard of care to patients. Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness, but if the condition is diagnosed and treated early, blindness is preventable."

It is vital we continue to support the talented individuals whose work makes a real difference

David Crabb, professor of statistics and vision research at City University London, worked on the development of the test and added: "Here in the UK an estimated 500,000 people have glaucoma and of these 67% aren't diagnosed. Given that it can lead to eventual blindness, this is a significant health problem."

If the UK is to remain at the forefront of international health research, support for our universities is vital

Concluding the report, Professor Rick Rylance, chairman of the RCUK, said: "Research has an impact on all our lives. Whether it is a breakthrough in experimental science, or an invention that makes new things possible, or a project that leads us to understand better the strengths and weaknesses of our society, research is the key to the UK's growth, prosperity and wellbeing. Big Ideas for the Future showcases just some of the excellent research being carried out in UK universities that achieves these aims. It is vital we continue to support the talented individuals whose work makes a real difference."

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