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The Midlands mobilises research excellence to tackle COVID-19

Midlands universities, hospitals and clinical infrastructures are coming together to deliver innovations to fight the coronavirus and support the NHS.

Working across Midlands Innovation Health (MIH) and Midlands Health Alliance (MHA), the two large collaborative academic and clinical research organisations in the Midlands, the region is focusing internationally recognised expertise and cutting-edge facilities to drive forward the following areas:

Outstanding clinical trials investigators and infrastructure

Partners are investigating potential treatments for patients and delivering leading patient recruitment rates across a number of national priority clinical research trials.
Professor Chris Whitty, the Government's Chief Medical Officer has contacted NHS Trusts encouraging them to continue supporting patients to take part in COVID-19 research studies. This is building on activity that has so far seen over 50,000 people across the country involved in urgent research into the disease - including thousands from Midlands’ sites.
Thousands of patients in the Midlands, who have been admitted to hospital with COVID-19, have been recruited to clinical trials. Some of the trials that NHS Trusts in the Midlands have recruited patients into include:

  • Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy (RECOVERY),
  • International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC),
  • Pandemic Respiratory Infection Emergency System Triage (PRIEST),
  • Genetics of susceptibility and mortality in critical care (GenOMICC),
  • Pandemic Influenza in Pregnancy (UKOSS),
  • SARS-COV-2 Infection - Synairgen Trial (SNG001) and
  • Randomised, Embedded, Multifactorial, Adaptive platform trial for Community Acquired Pneumonia (REMAP-CAP).

The Nottingham and Leicester Biomedical Research Centres (BRCs) are also supporting the government-sponsored ACCORD phase II clinical platform trial to fast-track research into potential treatments for COVID-19. The three Midlands BRCs (strategic research partnerships between the NHS and academia) are playing a crucial role in the co-ordination and collaboration of partners across the region during this time, enabling rapid translation of clinical research into care.

A major drugs trial is now open in Birmingham to rapidly test new therapies for hospitalised COVID-19 patients. Using licensed and novel drugs that target the most serious symptoms, CATALYST aims to reduce the severity of the disease, lower patient admissions to intensive care and, ultimately, decrease virus-related deaths. The trial, designed by the Inflammation – Advanced and Cell Therapy Trials Team at the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit, is being run in partnership with the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and the Birmingham BRC.

Mobilising to facilitate national genome sequencing, molecular biology and antibody testing targets
MIH and MHA partners across the region have dedicated expertise, equipment and resources to help increase regional testing capacity and to improve test performance.

Playing a leading role in the response to the epidemic using nationally recognised strengths in health data, digital space and design
Taking advantage of existing regional programmes (including the Midlands HDRUK Substantive site and Digital Innovation Hubs), MIH and MHA partners are delivering innovation in COVID-19 data modelling, PPE design, use of clinical space, societal behaviour analysis and clinical advice. 

Funded by EPSRC, the HDRUK Hub Pioneer (in partnership with the Alan Turing Institute and UCL) has established DECOVID to analyse health data to address urgent questions defined by clinical staff in order to produce rapid insights, which support proactive patient management during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Driving forward innovative processes and removing supply chain barriers through world-leading production expertise, facilities and laboratories
Building upon the Midlands’ longstanding manufacturing history, MIH partners have been involved in the development of new ventilators, rapid production of new PPE and reagents, and testing of technologies to solve every day needs.

Contributing to the international research effort using well-established global research links, local research expertise and an in-depth understanding of the Midlands ethnically diverse population
Leading facilities (such as Leicester’s Centre for BME Health and Warwick’s NIHR Global Research Unit on Improving Health) are working together with national/international partners and policy makers around COVID-19 to ensure the impact upon the global population is fully understood.


Health and clinical research highlights from the region

The following priority programmes highlight the breadth on the Midlands research and clinical study

Clinical Educators in Emergency Departments (CEED)
Lead: Dr David Terry, Chief Investigator (Aston University).
CEED involves more than 50 Emergency Departments and over 120 emergency medicine consultants across England. The evaluation of the study is led by the Academic Practice Unit at Aston University. This NIHR portfolio study seeks to identify the benefits of providing clinical educators to under pressure emergency departments. With unprecedented strains on clinical services, and especially hospital based emergency services, Health Education England has confirmed the importance of continuing the study during the current COVID-19 period.

Ventilator prototype testing and evaluation
Lead: Dr Tom Clutton Brock (University of Birmingham).
The NIHR Trauma MIC and Medical Devices Testing and Evaluation Centre teams have been involved in the development and testing of over 50 prototypes of 12 different ventilators, CPAP systems and non-invasive ventilation systems. Working alongside the Cabinet Office and MHRA, the testing has fed into the review process to decide which devices are taken forward for rapid production for use in patients. The first device that has been approved is the “Penlon’s Prima ES02 ventilator”, with other designs, pending approval, in the pipeline.

Global clinical trials of pharmaceutical heparins for the prophylaxis and treatment of COVID-19
Lead: Dr Mark Skidmore (Keele University).
Researchers are leading a global consortium investigating the carbohydrate-mediated mechanisms by which SARS-CoV-2 targets and invades host-cells. The consortium (containing scientists, clinicians, manufacturers and regulators) aims to understand the underpinning mechanisms that determine COVID-19 severity. Trials to evaluate/re-purpose glycosaminoglycan heparin as a prophylactic agent and potential therapeutic are in progress globally, alongside the development of new tools to study coronavirus-glycosaminoglycan interactions and screen carbohydrate-based COVID-19 therapeutics.
https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.28.20082552v1 (Published as a pre-print)

Decoy protein injection to stop COVID-19
Lead: Professor Nick Brindle (University of Leicester).
Using pioneering techniques in molecular evolution to evolve a protein to optimise its use, the University of Leicester and MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology are working on the creation of a new soluble protein that binds to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, thereby preventing it from being able to bind to and infect our cells. The virus normally binds to a receptor called ACE2, which the new protein mimics, but the decoy is engineered to be more attractive to the virus, thus preventing the virus from ‘hijacking’ and reproducing within our cells.

Behavioural change in response to COVID-19
Colleagues from across Loughborough University are studying the impact COVID-19 has had on a variety of behaviours, from work-life balance to social values, utilising both real-time data and national/international surveys. Two studies of note are led by: Dr Nicola Paine and Professor Paula Griffiths who are assessing how people’s attitudes and behaviours around coronavirus are impacted by official government actions and advice (survey), while Dr Gemma Witcomb is looking at the impact on eating habits, sleep, physical activity and wellbeing of adults and children in the UK.

Development of a potential DNA vaccine against COVID-19
Lead: Professor Lindy Durrant (University of Nottingham and Scancell)
The University of Nottingham is contributing essential virology expertise to develop a safe and effective vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Researchers will assist Scancell Holdings plc, a developer of novel immunotherapies for cancer treatment, to adapt its existing cancer vaccine platform for the development of a new vaccine. Virologists at the Centre for Research on Global Virus Infections have identified parts of the virus that may generate an immune response that will prevent future infection by the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The Respiratory Support trial (RECOVERY-RS)
Lead: Professor Gavin Perkins (University of Warwick).
This new clinical trial will compare standard care, intubation and invasive ventilation for critically ill patients, with other non-invasive treatment methods including masks driven by oxygen or high-flow oxygen through the nose. The comparative data produced will provide a better understanding of which methods are most effective in reducing the need for invasive ventilation and for improving patient outcomes.

Speaking about the Midlands' response to the COVID19 crisis, Professor Mark Lewis, Dean of School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University and Convener of Midlands Innovation Health, said: “I am very proud of what has been achieved by our academic staff, both within the universities and local hospitals. Rising to the challenge, Midlands Innovation Health partners continue to produce high quality research and innovation that supports our NHS colleagues and the fight against COVID-19. Working with Midlands Health Alliance, has allowed us to ensure that the maximum impact can be achieved from our research for future patient benefit.”

Professor David Adams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Head of College of Medical and Dental Sciences at the University of Birmingham and a Director of Midlands Health Alliance, commented: “It is great to see the amount of work that is happening in the Midlands in the fight against COVID-19. Having both Midlands Innovation Health and Midlands Health Alliance to bring together academia and the NHS, it puts us in a great position to maximise the impact of Midlands research and show that we are producing a high quality and quantity of research during this time. This will help us to treat patients with COVID-19 and also improve patient care in the future.”

Notes for editors

For further information, please contact:
Nick King, Midlands Innovation Communications and Marketing Manager, on: +44 (0)7964 391057 or nick.king@era.ac.uk
Alex Archibald, Midlands Innovation Health Project Manager, +44 (0)116 229 7841 or Alex.Archibald@midlandsinnovation.org.uk
Lois Daniels, Midlands Health Alliance, Operations Manager, +44 (0)7391731582 or Lois.J.Daniels@uhl-tr.nhs.uk

About Midlands Innovation
Midlands Innovation is a world-class research and innovation partnership, combining the collective excellence of eight leading universities in the heart of the UK – Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick. It unites the power of university research with the unique strengths of Midlands industry to drive cutting-edge research, innovation and skills.

About Midlands Innovation Health
Midlands Innovation Health (MI Health) coordinates and combines the biomedical and healthcare strengths of seven research-intensive Midlands universities to deliver improved health and regional growth. Driving disruptive interventions and influencing nationally, MI Health draws together a critical mass of innovative regional stakeholders to impact national and global health challenges using local training strengths, expertise, networks, best practice and facilities. MI Health partners are the Universities of Aston, Birmingham, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick.

About Midlands Health Alliance
Midlands Health Alliance (MHA) aims to work together to ensure a step change in the quality and quantity of high-quality clinical biomedical research in the Midlands related to patients, public and industry. By working together, it will develop a common strategy for maximising the impact of its research streams; standardised tools and approaches to clinical patient recruitment and study setup, a clear infrastructure for signposting its capabilities to industry. The ambition is to increase its reach and voice in national and international funding opportunities, and secure regional investment. MHA partners are NIHR infrastructure across the Midlands and the Academic Health Science Networks.

Midlands Innovation Health