The recently announced £3 million UK government contract for a NHS Chair in Pharmacogenetics at the University of Liverpool consolidates a research programme that already includes plans to open a Centre for Personalised Medicines in the university’s Old Royal Infirmary.

The new post, which the Department of Health (DoH) will fund over five years together with associated research and staffing, will be held by Professor Munir Pirmohamed, a clinical pharmacologist with a well-established reputation in the pharmacogenetics field. Professor Pirmohamed also serves on the UK Commission on Human Medicines and is chairman of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA) Pharmacovigilance Expert Advisory Group.

The government grant will be supplemented by around £1 million of the University of Liverpool’s own funds over the five-year period, the DoH noted. The university has also been awarded £2 million by The Wolfson Foundation towards the Centre for Personalised Medicine, a complementary initiative set to open its doors in 2009. Philanthropic gifts are expected to generate a further £5 million for new equipment and staff at the Centre.

The facility will accommodate the research activity of the NHS post as well as cutting-edge equipment such as a state-of-the-art DNA archiving system, the university said. This archive will hold up to 300,000 DNA samples from patients, which will be sorted and selected via an automated robotic system, enabling high-throughput genotyping and analysis. The pharmacogenetics team will work alongside partner National Health Service (NHS) organisations to collect clinical information from patients in hospitals across the Northwest. Priority research areas will include the toxicity and efficacy of drugs used to treat infections such as HIV.

The newly created NHS Chair in Pharmacogenetics is the first and only such post in the UK. “While pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are investing in this area of research, their focus has naturally been on innovative products that may not be marketed for some years,” the DoH commented. “The Department of Health wanted to support research on existing common medicines, which patients are taking now, or likely to be taking soon, with the potential to deliver improved patient care in the near future.”

The contract was open to bidding from all higher education institutions in the UK. The selection panel was swayed by the University of Liverpool’s “clear focus on clinical implementation and strong plans for capacity building and developing collaborative links with clinical specialities”, the DoH noted. The university’s proposed research programme also reflected the Department’s own research priorities.

Professor Pirmohamed will lead a team of 11 scientists, researchers and nurses in identifying gene groups that dictate a patient’s positive or negative response to medication. The research, which will be carried out in collaboration with the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital and other hospitals in the North West, will focus on “areas of public health importance”, including anticonvulsant therapy in epilepsy; inhaled steroids in children with asthma; acute coronary syndrome and variability in response to treatments; and peptic ulceration induced by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

An estimated quarter of a million people are admitted to hospital in the UK each year following adverse reactions to commonly prescribed drugs, at an average annual cost of £466 million to the NHS, the university pointed out.