Born in Bradford: The research pioneers

PROFESSOR John Wright’s work has taken him around the world, most notably to Africa where he has worked intermittently for 25 years in the battle against TB, cholera and, most recently, Ebola.

Two of the children photographed as part of the Born in Bradford project. Picture: Ian Beesley

He is a hugely well respected clinical epidemiologist with a background in public health and hospital medicine. But for all his impressive work abroad it’s a research project closer to home that he set up which may prove to be his greatest legacy.

It’s nine years since Professor Wright first mooted the idea of bringing health professionals and researchers together in Bradford with the aim of using research to improve the health and wellbeing of children in the city. Twelve months later Born in Bradford (BiB) was launched, seeking to answer wide-ranging questions about the city’s biggest health challenges, such as heart disease, mental health and cancer by tracking the lives of nearly 13,500 babies and their families from across the Bradford district.

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It is one of the largest medical research studies of its kind anywhere in the world and will follow the children into adulthood. Researchers have already gleaned a wealth of knowledge, the highlights of which are being shared at the Science That Changes A City conference, being hosted this week by the University as part of the British Science Festival.

The aim of the project is to find out more about the causes of childhood illness by studying children from different cultures and backgrounds as their lives unfold. In some cases it might reinforce what we already know, but it has quickly yielded some interesting findings.

Prof Wright, who is based at the Bradford Institute for Health Research – which is leading the Born in Bradford project, believes this is just the beginning. “If you look at medical research in Bradford it has grown very rapidly over the last five years or so and hopefully this will continue,” he says.

The impetus for the research came on the back of the startlingly high infant mortality rates – which were double the national average – and a determination to tackle a raft of growing health issues in the city. “We realised there were health problems in Bradford and that it had some of the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and asthma, as well as the highest rate of childhood obesity in the country.”

Born out of shock and frustration at the health inequities in the city, the research offers more than just a plaster stuck over a festering wound. “We want it to have a catalysing effect on science that brings different groups together to help create fountains of new knowledge.”

But it’s not only about new research, it’s also about how you harness it. “The key thing is to ensure this knowledge translates into practice because there isn’t always a link between doctors and nurses and the researchers,” says Prof Wright.

Their work has made a big difference in a short space of time. In total, around 28,000 people have been involved in the study so far, making it one of the world’s biggest medical research studies.

It goes beyond simply helping people in Bradford. “Our findings and research are helping to shape national and international attitudes towards health issues,” he says.

BiB has produced some notable successes including the creation of a Yorkshire-wide congenital anomalies register; becoming the first Trust in the UK to provide diabetes screening for all pregnant women and developing a mobile phone app to help parents and health professionals monitor children’s weight.

The research carried out so far has also varied greatly. Earlier this year a study found that British Pakistani infants ate more chips and sugar-sweetened drinks than their white British 12-month-old counterparts in Bradford. It also revealed that British Pakistani infants eat much more fruit and less processed meat.

Such findings are important because they allow health professionals to see trends early and means they can encourage parents to adopt healthier diets that could save the NHS huge sums of money further down the road.

BiB’s research has also helped show that exposure to air pollution caused by fumes from vehicles can significantly restrict the growth of babies in the womb, with its findings published in the health journal The Lancet.

Their studies have also looked at innovative ways of finding remedies to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles – including adjustable sit-to-stand desks – which were installed at one Bradford primary school.

During the nine-week study the year five pupils became more active, reducing their daily classroom sitting time by 52 minutes.

But it isn’t just about forging closer links and encouraging greater collaboration between researchers and clinicians, important as that work is, it’s also about making medical science more accessible to ordinary people and changing long held perceptions.

“We’re trying to get the public more engaged in science and research,” he says. “The perception a lot of people have when they think of science is of men and women in white coats and test tubes, and we want to change that. We want to bring back science into the community and show that everybody can contribute to our understanding of things like heart disease, genetics and diabetes.”

BiB’s artist-in-residence and social documentary photographer, Ian Beesley, has photographed 77 sets of twins as part of the project. His photos have been used as a way of engaging the local community and attracting interest in what is at times a complex science project.

“It’s way of using art and local communities to help give science a more human face,” says Prof Wright.

Such has been its success that the project now has scientists working with them not only from across the UK, but also Europe and the United States and is helping establish Bradford as a world leader in the field of scientific research.

“It’s become a focus for new knowledge and new science and it’s also a way for people to contribute to what’s happening in the city,” he says.

Prof Wright points out that the studies are for the benefit of everyone living in the city. “Bradford has a large South Asian population and a large white population and our findings relate right across the social spectrum. We’re talking about factors that affect us all in our day to day lives.”

But he believes there is much more to come in the decades ahead. “By the time some of the most exciting results emerge I will be long dead, because it will only be when these children reach old age that we will have a full understanding of the factors that have affected their wellbeing and career prospects.”

• For more information about the Born in Bradford project go to www.borninbradford.nhs.uk