NIHR | Manchester Biomedical Research Centre

Bridging the Gap – January 2022

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You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

Dr Jane Goodall

Welcome to my January blog. I would like to wish you a Happy New Year and I do hope you managed to enjoy some rest over the festive break. This Christmas was very different from the last in terms of COVID-19 restrictions and socialising. It is, however, still important that we keep in mind the constantly changing nature of the pandemic and continue to take things seriously.

Reflecting on other issues that are high on the global agenda, I want to use this issue to focus on another great challenge of our times – climate change and environmental sustainability.

November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow brought home to me the heightened urgency of the need to address climate change. Whilst this is a global challenge requiring action at a governmental and multinational level, there is no doubt that it is also about individual choices and behaviours. This of course means that, as a scientific community, we need to consider how our work and activities impact the planet as well as the steps we need to take to address this going forward.

Science and research continues to find new and innovative ways to tackle climate change, however, we still have a long way to go in terms of making our work more sustainable. Even in the pandemic there have been negative impacts through our use of disposable masks, test kits and other single-use items which, whilst necessary for individual protection, has impacted our streets, outdoor spaces, and environment.

On the positive side, changes to daily work and life have also presented many new opportunities and positives for the future. During periods of lockdown, we experienced measurable differences in air quality. Reductions in road traffic and air travel, as well as the switch to working from home, has forced us all to think differently. As we emerge from the current crisis, it is for all of us to decide what we will do differently; whether that is the number of days we work from home, our mode of transport, how many conferences we agree to travel to, or how many cities and regions we traverse to attend face-to-face meetings. What you do genuinely makes a difference.

I am proud that as a health and research community, Manchester is already playing a leading role in the drive towards sustainability and I wanted to highlight some of the projects linked to our BRC that are addressing such changes.

In 2021, The University of Manchester (UoM) led the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact rankings of 1,200 universities worldwide, to be named the top university for action on sustainable development. These rankings show how institutions address the United Nations’ (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which cover pressing challenges and opportunities facing humanity and the natural world, and include areas such as health, inequality, climate change, consumption, and many more. This is a fantastic achievement and shows how the University is leading the way internationally in terms of its vision for positive and sustainable societal impacts across Greater Manchester academia. The Sustainable Futures website also has news on a wide range of green projects across the University, if you want to find out more.

One aspect of this is UoM’s involvement in the national Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF). This scheme aims to improve the environmental performance and sustainability of our research and teaching labs, with a set of clear criteria awarding them ‘bronze’, ‘silver’ or ‘gold’ ratings; at least 30 UoM laboratories are currently taking part. I am delighted that our own Centre for Musculoskeletal Research (CfMR) is currently ‘bronze’ rated and aiming to gain ‘gold’ within two years. CfMR are also currently supporting the training of a group of LEAF champions across our university laboratories, so that the pivotal role this infrastructure plays in our research projects can continue on a more sustainable footing.

The recent launch of the Research Van – a partnership between Manchester BRC, the NIHR Manchester Clinical Research Facility (CRF), NIHR Clinical Research Network Greater Manchester (CRN GM), and Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT) – shows the value of bringing research closer to communities. Not only will this initiative make pioneering research more accessible and inclusive, by reducing the need for participants to travel to and from their homes to hospitals, it will also help cut overall travel emissions from research and reduce our carbon footprint.

Alongside changes to our working practices, our research is also vital in understanding the impact climate change can have on public health and disease. Lockdowns drew attention to air quality and pollution, and several of our researchers are leading initiatives to understand its impact on health and improve this.

Emissions particles and common air pollutants such as diesel exhaust fumes, woodsmoke and cooking emissions have been linked with neurological and other types of diseases. However, it is not fully understood which gases and pollutants are most harmful in causing disease. Led by Gordon McFiggans, Professor of Multiphase Procedures at UoM, Professor Jacky Smith, Improving Respiratory Symptoms Programme Lead, and researchers within our Respiratory theme are supporting a national UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)-funded project to understand the epidemiological impact of these pollutants on neurological and other conditions. This is using a unique chamber at UoM which simulates various types of air pollution across different indoor and outdoor environments. The team hope this work will help to create a ‘hazard ranking’ of air pollutants, to help inform air policy decisions and reduce ill health.

Global warming is intricately connected with alterations in levels of solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in the atmosphere. Research by Dermatology Associate Theme Lead, and Photodermatoses Programme Lead, Professor Lesley Rhodes, and other global scientists, established the link between higher UVR and worsening of symptoms of skin conditions such as photodermatitis. As a member of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Environmental Effects Assessment Panel, Lesley also plays an integral part in assessing global research which informs UN solar UVR effects reports and updating the Montreal Protocol – which regulates global use of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. As one of only a few clinical scientists, and the sole dermatologist on the panel, her role is to assess how alterations in UVR reaching the Earth’s surface will influence human health and disease.

Also on the Montreal Protocol, Professor Ashley Woodcock a leading researcher in our Respiratory theme, chairs the protocol’s Technology and Economic Assessment panel, and has led a 20-year global effort on the phase-out of ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in inhalers, which finally ceased in 2015 when they were phased out in China. It is an amazing fact that the ‘blue’ hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) asthma inhalers, used by millions of patients, have the same carbon footprint as travelling 180 miles in an average family car, while pressured Metered Dose Inhalers (MDIs) account for around 12 per cent of the NHS’ carbon footprint for direct patient care. Ashley is now leading a global effort to reduce this through the switch to dry powder inhalers, which are equally as effective, safe for the ozone, and have a negligible carbon footprint.

Researchers within UoM’s Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health (FBMH) have also been carrying out a range of population-based research on the impact of air pollution on birth outcomes. This has been led by Professor of Foetal and Maternal Medicine, Ed Johnstone, Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health, Martie van Tongeren, and Reader in the Division of Population Health, Health Services Research and Primary Care, Dr Andrew Povey. The trio were recently successful in their collaborative bid to the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) Clean Air Programme to extend this work, in particular looking at the effect of air pollution prior to conception and at different stages of pregnancy.

While these are just a few projects, all of this shows real promise and a massive shift in thinking when it comes to environmental sustainability, and how we adapt to the challenge of climate change and its impact on health and disease. It is fantastic to see Manchester making major contributions to the global effort, and I look forward to seeing more of these kinds of projects in the future.

News from across the BRC

In wider news from across the BRC, international research from Professor David Denning, Respiratory Fungal Infections Programme Lead, and Universitas Indonesia, found a significant proportion of tuberculosis patients at Jakarta hospitals contracted and eventually died from the fungal infection aspergillosis.

Meanwhile in our Musculoskeletal theme, Research Associate Michelle Barraclough has written a blog about her research placement in Toronto to understand the cause of lupus ‘brain fog’.

Events and training

In collaboration with UoM and Manchester CRF, our Masters of Research (MRes) programme provides clinicians and researchers with the opportunity to learn about the design leadership, and delivery of early phase studies. Two students on the MRes Cancer programme, Annie Tivey and Erin Peat, recently blogged about their experiences working and studying at The Christie as part of the programme. Further information about the programme is also available on our training webpage.

The Inclusive Research eLearning module – co-developed by Vocal, patient and community leaders, Manchester CRF and the i3HS Hub – is a valuable resource for anyone working in clinical research and open to BRC Faculty. This draws on case studies and data from Greater Manchester, to help you to develop and apply an inclusive approach in your own environment. The module takes one to two hours to complete and can be done in one session or in chunks – though please ensure you enrol on the course (rather than completing it via Open Access) in order to take the quiz and receive a certificate for completion.

A special UoM / Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) ‘sandpit’ event – Causal Inference in Biomedical Research – takes place online on Tuesday 25 January. This aims to stimulate new biomedical/Artificial Intelligence collaborative activity, around causal inference, and is open BRC researchers. A day later on Wednesday 26 January, Manchester Academic Health Science Centre’s (MAHSC) latest virtual seminar will explore how COVID-19 has impacted people with diabetes, and the behavioural science approaches behind this, while Professor Rick Body, Director of Research and Innovation at MFT, co-hosts another event with the UoM Business Engagement Team exploring different routes for early career researchers looking to work with industry. Finally, on Wednesday 9 February the NIHR host their Methodology Incubator webinar on the pragmatic use of artificial intelligence with big healthcare data.

As we conclude, I would encourage all of you to reflect on Dr Jane Goodall’s quote with which I opened this blog and consider “what kind of difference you want to make”.

Until next time, take care and look after yourselves.

Professor Ian N Bruce

Director, NIHR Manchester BRC