NIHR Clinical Research Network’s Great North Research Conference for the Life Sciences and Medical Technology Industries

Photo credit: NIHR CRN Greater Manchester

By Helen Cole, Executive Lead for Health Technologies and Evaluation

It’s not often you find yourself competing for attention with an iconic Concorde – but that’s just what I was faced with last week, as NHSA speaker at the NIHR’s Great North Research Conference in Manchester.  

It’s equally unlikely that you would get to sit in the Queen’s favoured seat on Concorde (or at least that of the royal handbag!) just minutes after giving a blood sample to #BePartofResearch. I’m proud to say this event blog comes to you from a new recruit to the NIHR BioResource, and now a potential future research participant. 

Day 1 – with a focus on the Life Sciences Industry, the day opened with a rousing call to action from Professor Alistair Hall, Clinical Director of the NIHR CRN Yorkshire and Humber. Setting the scene of our northern ‘rough diamond’ counterpart to the Golden Triangle of London-Oxford-Cambridge, there are multiple facets and flashes of brilliance in delivering research themes across the North of England including cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The adage is true – with high prevalence conditions and chronic burden of disease, if research can be done in the North, then it should be done in the North. Not least with the strong northern spirit of community, or ‘entente cordiale’, that delivered Concorde herself – we heard during the afternoon breakout sessions that the new NIHR Patient Recruitment Centres (PRCs) in Blackpool, Newcastle and Bradford are leading the country with high throughput and delivering to time and target, primarily for late phase commercial research. 

On the main stage, we heard next from Lord James O’Shaughnessy on the eve of the Government’s response to his review of the commercial clinical trials landscape. One takeaway observation from me was his comment about identifying excellence and then systemising it for patient benefit and public good – not so far from the vision and mission of our Northern Health Science Alliance! Lord O’Shaughnessy picked out Newcastle and the North East as doing well in commercial clinical trials, the North West having strengths in Primary Care research and Yorkshire and Humber performing in digital trials. With the NHSA regularly convening clinical and academic experts from our member institutions, for knowledge exchange and consortia-building around funding calls at scale, we too systemise collaborative excellence to deliver industry partnership opportunities in cell and gene therapies, diagnostics and MedTech, data and AI. 

The morning session concluded with insightful presentations from AstraZeneca and Validae Health, themed around challenges, opportunities and patient-focussed trial design for successful research delivery in primary and community care settings.  

Prompting strong applause from the attentive audience of hundreds, commentary from the speaker panel Q&A session included ideas such as: 

  • A need for greater national capacity and capabilities in specialist clinical pharmacology – would a solution see the NHS working more closely with Medical Research Charities? 
  • Research as a health intervention – can the devolved mayoral authorities in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and the North East optimise their civic infrastructure, housing and leisure, to improve public health?  
  • Northern communities have a particularly good track record of signing up to participate in clinical research. Our region was ready to go during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we need to ensure that these volunteers continue to have access to a range of research opportunities and trials to join. 
  • Diversity in clinical trials covers a broad spectrum – e.g. not only gender, age and ethnicity, but also requires accommodations to recruit the working population with zero-hour contract restrictions. It is only by decentralising trial design that we can get innovation closer to people in marginalised communities. 
  • Lastly, we need to continue striving to enable real-time access to routinely collated patient data for research. To identify and overcome the barriers, and ensure the solution is attuned to public opinion. 

Day 2 – with a focus on the Medical Technology Industry, a tailored reprise of Professor Hall’s call to action, included recognition of the Northern Innovation Accelerator for Mental Health (NIAMH) (in conjunction with the NHSA’s Mental Health Network). I then joined morning speakers from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and NHSA member South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust, who presented some impressive patient outcomes from their BEST (Bleomycin electrosclerotherapy) NIHR study. 

My own presentation, “Building a Northern Super Cluster to support the Medical Technology Industry” reflected on NHSA collaborations with the Northern Powerhouse 11 Local Enterprise Partnerships (NP11) throughout 2021, culminating in our joint report, and then the NHSA’s representation to the Autumn Comprehensive Spending Review. Despite there being no large-scale government investment in our proposals that year, we learned that increased R&D allocations would be devolved to government departments, with some regional drivers to address the levelling-up agenda. We have subsequently worked with our NHSA members and their partners across the rich, pan-Northern R&D ecosystem, to support several consortia bids into funding calls related to our Super Cluster work. This conference was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate successful awards to NHSA member institutions, including two of the five EPSRC Digital Health Hubs being awarded to the North of England, and the most recent announcement of five new NIHR HealthTech Research Centres (HRCs) for our region, four of which are hosted by NHSA member institutions.  

This platform was also an opportunity to announce our recent licensing of the NHSA as a NICE META Tool facilitating organisation. We look forward to doing more 1:1 work with MedTech companies, to identify and address gaps in their development plans, and potentially make mutually beneficial referrals through our network of member NHS Trusts, for innovation projects matched to local clinical needs and interests.  

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What a view from the speaker’s lectern! 

Photo credit: NIHR CRN North East and North Cumbria 

I would like to finish on a note of personal thanks to the NIHR CRNs for choosing the Manchester Concorde Conference Centre as the venue for these two days. Our late mother was fortunate enough to have flown her – chasing myself and my sister (on the bog-standard jumbo) across the Atlantic, after visiting New York to celebrate her 60th birthday in 2003. In the final months of Concorde’s service, she enjoyed the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury and actor Ben Kingsley, whilst experiencing the sonic boom and looking down at the curvature of the Earth from the edge of space. It was a moment of reflection and nostalgia to be sitting in the same cabin, 20 years later! 

‘The Mammy, Áine Warren (1943-2022), waiting to board at Heathrow in 2003. 

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