A consortium of 10 government agencies and research funding charities is investing £19 million in setting up four e-health research Centres of Excellence in the UK that will harness data from electronic patient records and the new Clinical Practice Research Datalink to optimise medical and public health research efforts.

In an initiative led by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the e-health research Centres in London, Manchester, Dundee and Swansea are scheduled to open in late 2012.

They are jointly funded by members of the E-Health Research Initiative, namely: Arthritis Research UK; the British Heart Foundation; Cancer Research UK; the Chief Scientist Office (Scottish Government Health Directorates); the Economic and Social Research Council; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; the Medical Research Council; the National Institute for Health Research; the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (Welsh Government); and the Wellcome Trust.

The idea is that the Centres will leverage existing resources in the National Health Service by pursuing cutting edge research that links e-health records with other forms of research and routinely collected data, to the benefit of patients, the general public and the UK’s medical research base.

They will investigate a broad range of conditions that impose a particular health burden on the UK population, including diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and child and maternal health.

Combining clinical, social and research data should enable researchers to identify more effective treatments, improve drug safety, assess risks to public health and study the causes of diseases and disability, the funding consortium noted.

CPRD datasets

The four Centres will make use of patient datasets available through the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD), the £60 million service launched last spring.

“The public and charitable funding for these Centres builds on this important commitment from the Government and on similar bodies that link patient records in Scotland and Wales,” the funding consortium said.  

Hosted and managed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the CPRD combines the resources of the General Practice Research Database, which has been collecting (and making available to researchers) anonymised longitudinal medical records from primary care since 1987, and the Research Capability Programme piloted over the last four years by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The aim of the CPRD programme, which will be delivered incrementally over four years in line with plans for the proposed NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care to link datasets from GP and hospital care, is to establish productive relationships between previously siloed datasets in primary, secondary and tertiary care, as well as streamlining the processes through which researchers can access those data.

Engaging with the public

Recognising the persistent sensitivities around consent and confidentiality when patient data are used for medical research, particularly on the opt-out basis envisaged by the UK government, the new Centres will also take an active role in engaging with the public to promote better understanding of the benefits of research using e-health records, as well as serving as a point of contact for industry, the NHS and policymakers.

A network will be formed to capitalise on the e-health research Centres’ expertise and encourage wider collaborations among UK and international researchers to ensure there are effective links between different types of health and social datasets.

The Centres will also offer career development and training opportunities to reinforce the UK’s capacity and capability in research using health records.

Watershed moment

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said the e-health centres were the first of their kind and had the potential to “revolutionise” health research.

According to Professor Sir John Savill, chief executive of the MRC, the initiative represents “a watershed moment for data research and for the Medical Research Council which I believe will deliver the benefits of e-health research, improving patient care over the coming years”.

Biomedical Catalyst awards

Further moves to open up NHS patient data for clinical research were announced by the government last December as part of a package of measures to bolster the UK’s life science industry and attract inward investment.

Among those measures was a £180 million Biomedical Catalyst fund to bridge the ‘valley of death’ between the discovery of medical innovations and their commercialisation.

Jointly managed by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), the three-year fund is designed to nurture innovative technologies from the academic or commercial sectors from initial research in universities through to commercial development in small- and medium-sized companies, where they will be able to attract private equity.

Confidence in Concept

The TSB and the MRC have now made the first awards, totalling £10 million, from the Biomedical Catalyst fund to 14 UK universities and 18 Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

The MRC’s ‘Confidence in Concept’ awards, to a combined value of £7.4 million, provide the universities with grants of between £360,000 and £750,000 to help move promising research ideas towards clinical testing.

In addition, 18 SME-led projects will receive a total of £2.45 million from the TSB to conduct feasibility studies in areas that include developing a novel class of antibiotics. Each project will receive a grant of up to £150,000, amounting to 75% of the total project costs.