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Bridging the Gap – December 2020

Professor Ian Bruce

Author: Professor Ian Bruce

NIHR Manchester BRC Director / Connective Tissue Disease Programme Lead

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Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.

Helen Keller

Thank you to everyone who sent me positive feedback regarding the first edition of Bridging the Gap.

As I mentioned in the previous edition, so much work has been undertaken recently, both in our response to COVID-19, and in addressing the research needs of our themes, that it’s an almost impossible task to discuss it all, however I do want to shine a spotlight onto each our of areas over the next few months.

Hearing Health Spotlight

In this issue the focus is our Hearing Health theme. Our Hearing Health theme reminds us just how important effective communication is. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we quickly realised how isolating and stressful it can be for someone with a hearing impairment and the knock-on effects this can have on their sense of isolation and also on their mental health. In a ward, there is the extraneous noise of oxygen masks and monitors compounded by clinicians wearing face masks and visors which restrict verbal and non-verbal communication. In the community, even simple face coverings muffle sounds and restrict added cues from lip-reading and facial expressions, all of which limit effective communication. Our team in Manchester has been at the vanguard of highlighting these issues and has really helped to spread awareness of the unintended consequences of the necessary measures deployed to combat this virus.

According to the WHO more than 450 million people world-wide have disabling hearing loss and only 17 per cent of those who need one, use a hearing aid. In the UK every year, around 355,000 adults are fitted with hearing aids for the first time, at a cost of £450 million to the NHS. Through our One Manchester approach, cutting-edge research is being led by the BRC Hearing Health theme that could lead to a step-change in NHS hearing aid provision. The Follow-up and structured monitoring for adults offered an NHS hearing aid for the first time (FAMOUS) study is a unique collaboration of NIHR BRCs with hearing specialities and aims to understand and resolve the thousands of instances of low-use of hearing aids in adults with hearing loss.

Hearing loss is also a condition that has been reported anecdotally as a side effect of COVID-19, with a recent study led by Professor Kevin Munro, Hearing Health Theme Lead, suggesting that more than 13 per cent COVID-19 patients discharged from hospital, report hearing deterioration. Professor Munro discussed this research on Sky TV – and it also received other widespread press coverage and was viewed almost 20,000 times on Twitter. Now with funding from the Manchester BRC, The University of Manchester, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) and the Dowager Countess Eleanor Peel Trust, Professor Munro will be leading a study to investigate the acute and temporary effects of COVID-19 on hearing and tinnitus.

Professor Kevin Munro

Professor Kevin Munro talking to Sky News on hearing loss in COVID-19 patients. Click the image to watch the interview.

In further COVID-19 related hearing health research, Dr Gabrielle Saunders, who manages the Hearing Device Research Centre, has identified that whilst face coverings are a key tool in our fight against COVID-19, they also leave many people feeling isolated and stressed. These findings are shared in survey results on the impact of face coverings on people with hearing loss. Our team has recently received a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BSRC) to design a new reusable face mask to overcome some of the communication difficulties caused by face coverings. After it has been developed, we hope it will be made freely available to all who need it.

Our final piece of hearing health news is about Hearing Health Now – a unique, innovative project which aims to spark more conversations around hearing health. Paolo Arru, Vocal Project Manager, has written a blog about the project and shares a timely reminder of the importance of open conversations between researchers and the people we are aiming to reach and engage, and how Vocal can help to support this.

Other BRC News

We’ve also had some exciting news across our other themes over the last month.

International research involving Dr Hannah Durrington (Respiratory theme), found shift workers were at increased risk of asthma.

In our MSK theme, Professor Ariane Herrick explains clinical trials in the latest edition of Arthritis Digest, our researchers are launching a new app for scleroderma patients, while Dr Michelle Barraclough recently secured a prestigious fellowship from the Arthritis Society of Canada to study the ‘brain fog’ experienced by patients with lupus. This Fellowship builds on a 20-year collaboration in lupus research between Manchester and The University of Toronto, and will help set the scene for trials to help address this debilitating problem in lupus patients.

I’d also like to congratulate Charlotte Watson, PhD student in our Cancer Prevention and Early Detection theme, as she ends her PhD with a ‘Best Student Poster’ prize at a recent international informatics conference, and an exciting job offer with Spectra Analytics. Well done and good luck Charlotte.

Our work as a member of the NIHR Health Informatics Collaborative (HIC) continues to expand and develop. It is a privilege to be part of this national network, working collaboratively across BRCs to combine routinely collected data to conduct trustworthy translational research at scale. While we are engaged with several of the clinical themes, including viral hepatitis, critical care, colorectal cancer and renal disease, we are also involved in the HIC’s pandemic response; creating a national dataset to answer urgent questions about COVID-19 in patients with cardiovascular and renal disease. Finally, we are a co-founder and co-lead of the HICs Hearing Health theme which develops a structure to share and analyse data about individuals with hearing loss.

In training and development news, this month we opened the next round of our placements in Experimental Medicine, in collaboration with the NIHR Manchester Clinical Research Facility and Health Innovation Manchester. Open to a variety of healthcare professionals and students, these offer a chance to experience research through flexible six-week ‘taster’ placements, so please check out the 2020/21 placement and project brochures for more information.

The online launch of The University of Manchester’s Christabel Pankhurst Institute for Health Technology Research and Innovation will take place on the 12 January 2021 2pm to 3.30pm. To attend or be informed of future Institute events, please register your interest. This is another example of the One Manchester approach, bringing together a unique partnership between the University, NHS, business and local government, and will form an important part of the Greater Manchester health innovation ecosystem, working together to translate world-leading research into new products and services. Through Professor Niels Peek and the Informatics and Data Sciences theme, Manchester BRC is closely aligned to this Institute and we look forward to working together on a number of key initiatives going forward.

We also have two more online events coming up – the NIHR Immune-Mediated Inflammatory Disease (IMID) BioResource launch on 29 January, and a seminar on Lifestyle Interventions for Disease Prevention on 11 February.

As we look back over the past year, I want to thank the whole BRC team, as well as those who support us in our partner trusts and The University of Manchester, for their incredible dedication and hard work. None of us expected such a challenging year but the resilience and creativity of our team has been truly remarkable and will stand us in good stead for whatever is on the horizon. With better treatments and upcoming vaccines for COVID-19, we fervently hope that 2021 will see us returning to some level of normality. In both our COVID and non-COVID work I am confident that Manchester BRC will continue to play an internationally leading role in driving health improvements and lasting change for all our patients.

Wishing you and your families a restful, enjoyable, and safe Christmas and New Year period.

Take care and look after yourselves,

Professor Ian Bruce

Director, NIHR Manchester BRC