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Bridging the Gap – March 2021

“Good friends we have, good friends we’ve lost along the way. In this great future, you can’t forget your past.”

– Bob Marley

Welcome to the March 2021 edition of Bridging the Gap.

March has been a very eventful month to date with several important events dominating. It is now 12 months since the initial wave of COVID-19 hit, swiftly resulting in a national lockdown and a complete switch in all our clinical services and research work to meet the challenges of this global pandemic. Sadly, many of us have lost friends, family members, colleagues, or some of our own patients to COVID. So even while we look forward to wider vaccine roll-out and the gradual easing of current restrictions, we owe it to everyone to learn lessons from the past 12 months and aim to build more resilience into our systems and daily working practices.

I am also writing this after having just completed our fourth Manchester BRC Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). Our SAB is comprised of international experts working across our research areas, and this meeting serves as an opportunity for us to hear from independent “critical friends” about our strategy and performance in terms of meeting our targets. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate the added value and impact of our work for the people of Greater Manchester. Whilst of course this year differed to our previous SABs, where we have met in person, everyone adapted fantastically to our online sessions which comprised of a mixture of presentations and discussion. Indeed, this format provided the opportunity for colleagues and members of the SAB to watch sessions back they couldn’t attend ‘live’ – resulting in a fantastic plenary session with some great discussions. The feedback from these sessions will be invaluable as we prepare our bid for the next round of BRCs. I want to thank everybody in the BRC for the preparatory work ahead of the meeting and to the SAB who logged in across a multitude of timezones to attend the sessions. Special thanks to our core management team for pulling everything together to create a successful event which really demonstrated our collegiate spirit as a BRC.

I was also delighted to be involved with our International Women’s Day celebrations (8 March), teaming up with Research and Innovation at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT) and the NIHR Manchester Clinical Research Facility (CRF), to highlight all the women delivering extraordinary work as part of Manchester BRC and our partners. The gender balance in our BRC leadership and themes is testimony to the progressive and inclusive culture in The University of Manchester (UoM) and partner NHS trusts, of which I am immensely proud. You can read more from our inspiring women in this Twitter moment.

On March 15 the NIHR launched the Research Vs COVID social media campaign to thank the 1,000,000+ people who have taken part in COVID-19 research to develop treatments, care, and vaccines. This figure includes the nearly 20,000 participants recruited to trials at our partner NHS trusts. You can follow the campaign through the Manchester BRC and NIHR Research Twitter accounts: #ResearchVsCOVID

COVID-19: one year on

An immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was that, due to the unprecedented pressures on clinical admissions at our partner trusts, many of our clinical researchers were redeployed to frontline roles. This was particularly true for clinicians working in our Respiratory Medicine theme, where there has been a need for their expertise and clinical leadership in acute medicine and intensive care throughout most of the past 12 months. What is noteworthy was how even in the middle of unprecedented levels of clinical activity, our respiratory medicine and intensive care colleagues led the trials and studies that drove forward our knowledge of this disease and helped us discover treatments and bring forward vaccines to prevent COVID-19.

Since our non-COVID research activity had been paused, and in line with guidance from the NIHR, we took the opportunity to redistribute a proportion of our Year 4 budget to help fund and pump-prime COVID-19 related projects. Peer-reviewed by the Research Rapid Response Group, several projects were funded by the BRC during the first wave and in December BRC-funding linked with a UoM Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health philanthropic funding call to support additional COVID-19 studies. A diverse range of studies were funded, including:

  • ‘The fourth dimension of COVID-19: Circadian Time’ – In this study Dr John Blaikley and his team are investigating how disruption in circadian rhythms may influence the severity of COVID-19 and how these might influence time-of-day variation in symptoms and patient outcomes.
  • ‘Cardiac complicAtions in Patients with SARS Corona vIrus 2 regisTrY (CAPACITY-COVID UK)’ – In this study Professor Bernard Keavney and his team have joined the national Health Informatics Collaborative to study the incidence of cardiovascular complications in patients with COVID-19, and the vulnerability and clinical course of COVID-19 in patients with an underlying cardiovascular disease.
  • ‘Investigating long-term lymphocyte dysfunction in convalescent COVID-19’ – Dr Madhvi Menon is leading this study in the Lydia Becker Institute of Immunology and Inflammation. It aims to assess the phenotypic and functional characteristics of lymphocytes in convalescent COVID-19 patients and evaluate association with persistent symptoms of long COVID-19.

Special mentions are also due to Dr Tim Felton, Consultant in Intensive Care and Respiratory Medicine at Wythenshawe Hospital and Professor Andy Ustianowski, Consultant in Infectious Diseases at North Manchester General Hospital. Both these colleagues have played a leading role in the RECOVERY trial – the UK’s flagship COVID-19 treatment trial – and were co-authors on the pivotal study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This paper concluded that the low-cost drug, dexamethasone, reduced death in hospitalised COVID-19 patients by up to one third.

Across the BRC

As ever, much has been going on across Manchester BRC news, and this month we saw Professor Paul Dark, Respiratory Non-fungal Infections Programme Lead, appointed as the NIHR Clinical Research Network academic and clinical oversight strategic lead for:

  • Critical care
  • Trauma and emergency care
  • Anaesthesia, perioperative medicine and pain management
  • Dermatology

Paul will also provide strategic oversight for NIHR’s Imaging Group, continue as the NIHR Clinical Research Network national specialty lead for critical care, and advise the Department of Health and Social Care on urgent public health research into vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests for COVID-19. This is a fantastic testament to Paul’s dedication, leadership, skills and knowledge, and it’s a real privilege to have him in our BRC.

Congratulations also to Professor Anne Barton, Musculoskeletal Theme Lead, who had her NIHR Senior Investigator Award renewed for another three years, and Professor Peter Hoskins, part of our Advanced Radiotherapy theme, who has been confirmed as an NIHR Senior Investigator Award for the first time. This is a highly prestigious award and reflects the high esteem in which Anne and Peter are held in the national and international research community.

Our oncology researchers have joined with other experts from around the country to establish the NIHR Oncology Translational Research Collaboration (TRC) to accelerate cancer research, translating scientific discoveries into tangible benefits for patients. Professor Gareth Evans, BRC Theme Lead for Cancer PED, is the Academic Lead for Manchester and is also involved in the project’s Early Diagnosis workstream. Professor Catharine West, BRC Theme Lead for Advanced Radiotherapy, also co-leads its Radiotherapy workstream, and Professor Tim Illidge, New Radiotherapy-Immunotherapy Combinations Programme Lead for the BRC’s Precision Medicine theme will be working on the Immunotherapy workstream.

In the latest of our regular contributions to Arthritis Digest magazine, Professor Will Dixon of our Musculoskeletal theme discusses how technology is helping improve care for arthritis patients through research.

Our Hearing Health researchers published findings in the International Journal of Audiology, on how hard of hearing over-70s have experienced memory loss and mental health issues during COVID-19, and as part of World Hearing Health Day (3 March), Dr Ciara Kelly blogged about her research to deliver better outcomes in speech and language for babies with hearing loss.

There are several training and development opportunities open to BRC staff and researchers, including the launch of the of our Innovator Training Scheme (ITS) on Thursday 25 March with ‘The essentials of innovation and industry engagement’, so please do book your place and join us for future events. You can also follow updates and get involved on Twitter at #MCRinnovator. The latest MAHSC Seminar, ‘Understanding and treating cardiovascular disease in Greater Manchester’, takes place on Wednesday 31 March. Our MRes for Experimental Medicine programme is still open for September’s intake, while applications to the national NIHR Academy Mentoring and Leadership Academy close Friday 12 April, for those interested in mentoring.

Until next month, take care and look after yourselves,

Professor Ian Bruce

Director, NIHR Manchester BRC