Stronger together: Birmingham research infrastructures get together to boost innovation

Working collaboratively to pool expertise and resources and leverage synergetic strengths is key to accelerate innovation in health research. To highlight our integrated infrastructure, we attended the University of Birmingham and National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Research Showcase last week.

The event, attended by industry representatives, researchers, and policymakers, served as a platform for highlighting the collective strength and potential of the city’s research facilities and portfolio – from cutting-edge laboratories to studies tackling the most pressing health challenges.

“We have tremendous assets which are nationally and internationally needed,” said the recently appointed Head of College of Medical and Dental Sciences and Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Neil Hanley, in his opening address. “My mission is to make Birmingham and the West Midlands the best, most attractive, most cohesive place in the country to work in health and life sciences research, development and innovation.”

In her welcome speech, Birmingham Health Partners Director and University of Birmingham Professor Lorraine Harper focused on how Birmingham is leading the way in addressing health inequalities through research, as well as in early detection of disease, experimental medicine and clinical data. “We’ve recruited over 100,000 people to academic and commercial clinical trials over the past few years,” she said, “and we want to make sure that what we do influences policy in the UK and globally.”

Jo Pisani, Chair of the Precision Health Technologies Accelerator (PHTA), chaired the event’s first panel, “Enabling research impact through NIHR collaborations”, which discussed the power of not only cross-organisation collaborations in the city, but also working with industry and other regional institutions.

Dr Mubasshir Ajaz, Head of Health and Communities at the West Midland Combined Authority, then led a panel on health inequalities and how Birmingham can address them. The thought-provoking discussion concluded that although the city has extraordinary potential to achieve improvements in this area, these issues cannot be tackled in isolation – addressing inequalities locally requires looking at some of the national drivers of deprivation and exclusion.

PHTA’s CEO Professor Gino Martini delivered the first of three lightning talks around addressing national challenges through regional capability, followed by Hilary Fanning, Director of Research Development and Innovation at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, and Dr Luan Linden-Phillips, Programme Manager for the West Midlands Health Tech Innovation Accelerator.

“If you want to be a science superpower, you need places to do business. Elsewhere in the UK there’s a lack of lab space and nowhere for startups to go and grow. We are providing this space right here,” said Professor Martini. “Our game plan is a melting pot – different specialisms, backgrounds, companies of all sizes working together for patients, with academics offering their expertise to industry.”

After lunch and networking, the afternoon programme featured four different breakout sessions, focusing on the regional health ecosystem, health data, trials and regulatory science, and diagnostics.

“It takes a village to raise an AI algorithm and see it implemented in the NHS,” commented Hilary Fanning wrapping up her breakout session on health data. “We all have a part to play, and it’s key to get us all in the room when we’re developing innovation.”

Professor Lucinda Billingham, Director of Biostatistics at the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit and chair of the Trials and Regulatory Science session, commented on the importance of engaging community leaders to represent a more diverse population in clinical trials, as well as going out to communities with decentralised trials which don’t require participants to go to hospitals.

“There is massive patient demand for diagnostics, especially after COVID-19. We’re going to work together to work out how we can completely revolutionise how we deliver diagnostics in the West Midlands,” concluded Alex Richter, Professor and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Immunology and chair of the Diagnostics breakout session.

In his closing remarks, Professor Philip Newsome, Director of the NIHR Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre, mentioned Birmingham’s privileged position to deliver research that has global value, thanks to the city’s uniquely diverse population. He also highlighted once again how the local research community stands united in its mission to tackle health inequalities: “There are significant challenges in the region, but there are things we can do. By listening and learning from our communities, we can work together and influence policy to improve health equitably for all.”

Phil Newsome
Professor Phil Newsome
Professor Lorraine Harper
Professor Lorraine Harper