Plans to create the UK’s first Academic Health Science Centre through the partnership of two local hospitals with Imperial College London have been boosted by their new status as one of 11 Biomedical Research Centres across the UK.

London’s Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust and St Mary’s NHS Trust were designated a ‘Comprehensive’ BRC in partnership with Imperial College as part of a government initiative to drive forward transational research that takes scientific breakthroughs out of the laboratory and into the clinic. Four other hospital trusts in London, Cambridge and Oxford were awarded ‘Comprehensive’ BRC status, meaning they will work across a range of research areas. A further six NHS trusts and their academic partners in London, Newcastle and Liverpool become ‘Specialist’ BRCs, focusing on a specific field of research.

The BRCs are part of the National Institute for Health Research, a central component of the NHS research and development strategy launched by the UK government in January 2006 under the banner of ‘Best Research for Best Health’. They will share government funding of more than £450 million over five years (starting in April 2007) to conduct research in areas such as cancer and heart disease, asthma, HIV, mental illness, blindness, and the specific health needs of children and the elderly.

The Department of Health (DoH) sees the BRCs benefiting both patients, by giving them faster access to new medicines, diagnostics and treatments, and the national economy, by making sure the UK “retains its position at the top of the international league table for biomedical research”. Establishing new centres of excellence for health research is in line with the recommendations of the Cooksey report, published earlier this month following a comprehensive review of health research funding in the UK, the DoH noted.

Taking on the Cooksey findings

The government has agreed to take forward the Cooksey findings, which also endorsed the AHSC model envisaged by the Hammersmith Hospitals and St Mary’s Trusts. The report suggested that universities and NHS trusts “might follow the US Academic Medical Centre model, as Imperial College and St. Mary’s and Hammersmith NHS Trusts are doing with their plan to create the UK's first Academic Health Sciences Centre."

With its promise to deliver greater integration not only of research strategies but of “vital underpinning human resources and capital assets," the AHSC proposal “should make for a more effective approach to health research and patient care at these institutions," the Cooksey report said.

The hospitals, which will receive research funding of £19.5 million per annum as a Biomedical Research Centre, describe the planned AHSC as “a healthcare organisation that integrates governance and management for service delivery, teaching and research, based on tried and tested models around the world." They believe the project, which will be the subject of a formal consultation involving staff, patients and local communities next year, can serve as a magnet for investment and “clinical leaders who champion the creation and delivery of new diagnostic and treatment options to improve the lives and welfare of patients." By Peter Mansell