How Yorkshire leads the way in medical research

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From rare blood disorders to depression in the elderly, a new report celebrates the life-changing research of Yorkshire’s universities. Sarah Freeman reports.

Each year the Ig Nobel Prize celebrates the most improbable research to be published by some of the world’s most renowned universities.

Last year, the winners included a team from Japan who successfully measured the amount of friction created when someone slips on a banana skin, a Canadian project which attempted to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast and a grounbreaking exploration into treating uncontrollable nosebleeds using strips of cured pork. Perhaps most improbable of all was the Arctic Science Prize which went to a group of Norwegians who set out to ascertain how reindeer react to humans disguised as polar bears. Exactly the same as when they saw the real thing as it turned out.

While those behind the awards say the prizes are intended to “celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology” they also provide the basis of a pretty credible argument as to why an axe should be taken to university research budgets.

And yet for every slightly hair-brained project and for every academic who spends a lifetime on research no one else will ever read there are a hundred other truly innovative projects, which begin life in university laboratories, but which end up transforming the lives of ordinary people. It’s this work which is celebrated in a new report from the Medical Schools Council and much of it has been carried out in Yorkshire universities.

“The life sciences sector is the UK’s largest contributor to economic growth with a turnover of more than £50bn,” says the council’s chair Professor Iain Cameron. “It is made up of many different kinds of organisation, but the expertise that drives the sector comes from universities, the researchers who go onto work in companies large and small, and of course the crucial work being done in the universities themselves.

“Medical schools play a key role here. In the UK we have the best academic institutions working with the best research companies and supported by an unrivalled research infrastructure from basic discovery to clinical impact and it’s crucial for the nation’s wealth.”

As a call to preserve levels of research funding the MSC argument is pretty persuasive, but with Scottish universities facing a £20m cut to research budgets, their English equivalents know that there has never been a better time to prove their worth.

Leeds

If patience is a virtue, then Professor Peter Hillmen from the Leeds School of Medicine could well be one of the most righteous men in academia.

While in some areas of research, funding comes relatively easy, when you’re asking for support to unlock a treatment for a rare and little known about disease, doors tend to shut.

It took more than two years for Professor Hillmen and his team to convince Alexion Pharmaceuticals to allow a trial of a drug it had developed on a rare blood disorder. Paroxysmal nocturnal haemoglobinuria (PNH) affects just five people per million and with such low numbers the company feared that even if the trials were successful, bringing the drug to market would remain financially unviable.

Undaunted and spurred on by statistics which showed half of all patients with PNH die from the disease, Professor Hillmen kept up the pressure and when clearance for clinical trials finally came the team showed that the drug could immediately reverse the symptoms and associated complications of the disease.

For patients, the impact has been transformative. No longer requiring regular blood transfusions and painkillers many who had been forced to give up their jobs have since been able to return to work and the drug is now administered globally. The Leeds group has since published data that shows the survival rate of patients receiving the drug is now comparable with the general population.

“One of the main reasons we go into medicine is to improve people’s lives and this is one example of where research has dramatically succeeded in doing this,” says Professor Hillman. It has made life significantly better for thousands of sufferers worldwide.”

Sheffield

Academics are often accused of wrapping genuinely groundbreaking research in impenetrable jargon. Not so a team at Sheffield School of Medicine.

When they were approached about turning their research into reproduction and fertility into a television documentary, they not only said yes, but approved a title which was guaranteed to grab public attention - The Great Sperm Race.

The programme which was shown in 22 countries was based on research carried out between 1992 and 2006 and made good on its promise to tell the story of conception as never seen before. Exploring in minute detail everything from the lining of the Fallopian tubes to the sperm’s final destination in the womb, as the tagline for the film put it, “with 250 million competitors, it is the most extreme race on earth and there can only be one winner”.

“Not only was it really rewarding to do this research, it was doubly rewarding to help filmmakers turn our results into an epic and compelling television programme,” says Professor Allan Pacey. “Six years on from The Great Sperm Race being broadcast, I still receive emails from people around the world who tell me that it increased their understanding of human fertility and sometimes, how to deal with infertility.”

York

While report after report has highligted the need for better ways of diagnosing and treating depression, for many sufferers little changed.

A team led by Hull York Medical School at the University of York reckoned they could make a difference on a national scale. Their research showed that while screening is unlikely to deliver real benefits, a combination of talking therapies and better drug treatment could be the key. They also devised a new computer system which allows patient responses to treatment to be tracked in real time. The system has so far followed more than three million cases and the team is now looking at how older people with depression can be better cared for within the NHS.

“Depression is the most common mental disorder and costs the UK economy around £25bn a year,” says Professor Simon Gilbody. “We are keen to expand service, reduce stigma and ensure that people receive care int heir own homes or in their GP surgery.

“We find that people want better access to talking therapies and that this might be combined with medication where appropriate. Our research is beginning to show how this can be achieved, giving hope to the millions of people who suffer with depression.”