Joining forces to tackle COVID-19

June 1, 2020

For more than ten years, the Newcastle Joint Research Office has delivered world-class research to improve patient care and health outcomes. Now, it is also playing a pivotal part of the COVID-19 response

An established partnership between Newcastle University and The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (Newcastle Hospitals Trust), the Newcastle Joint Research Office (NJRO) has a strong track record of developing and implementing world-class research – from experimental ideas, through lab testing to trialling and delivering treatments. And it’s all focused on the best possible outcome for patients.

Angela Topping, head of the NJRO, reflects: “For all the science, discovery, and commercial aspects of our work, we never forget that people are at the heart of what we do – first and foremost, our work is about patients.”

Since it was formed in 2006, the NJRO has coordinated the participation of more than 100,000 people in a wide range of research studies and trials. In 2018-2019 alone, 277 new studies were opened, contributing to around 500 clinical trials per year coordinated by the office.

Studies range from single-site observational trials right through to multi-centre international clinical trials looking at new drugs, devices and diagnostic tests, which have the potential to make vast differences to peoples’ lives.

But unsurprisingly, priorities in recent weeks have turned to the fight against COVID-19.

The importance of collaboration

The NJRO currently has 13 COVID-19 related projects running, including running part of the Oxford search for an effective vaccine. Other projects include drug discovery and trial psychological impacts of the uncertainty we all face, and the impact of COVID-19 on children and expectant mothers.

In an area as nuanced and regulated as clinical research, setting up projects is normally a lengthy, intricate process but the rapid, widespread and hard-hitting onset of COVID-19 has established a new pace of project approval, while also ensuring that trials and studies are safe and ethical.

Angela explains: “A single process has been established to allow the chief medical officer to prioritise those COVID-19 studies that hold the most potential. We also have excellent teams within the NJRO who provide oversight of regulatory requirements for clinical research, so we know what we’re setting up is safe.

“But the dedication and collaboration of hundreds of people have been the key to getting this amount of work set up and underway so quickly.”

The importance of collaboration in research was highlighted in the January 2020 Academy
of Medical Sciences report ‘Transforming health through innovation: Integrating the NHS and Academia’. This report included the NJRO as a case study for streamlining research through joint research and development offices.

With attention drawn naturally to vaccine trials and other COVID-19 responses, a big piece of work at the start of the pandemic response was to ensure a safe pause of ongoing studies, which were either unrelated to COVID-19 or where the study did not impact on a patient’s ongoing treatment.

Implemented in March 2020, pausing work safely required close working with key stakeholders including clinicians, commercial sponsors and major research funders including the National Institute for Health Research. In May 2020, Newcastle Hospitals Trust moved to a

‘Restart, Reset and Recovery’ phase of all activities including the review of all paused studies, where close collaborative working is essential as the trust moves towards a ‘new normal’ with research being embedded in the fabric of patient care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, perhaps, helped to build a level of trust and interest in the opinion of research scientists and clinicians at a national level. And it seems to have raised the profile of clinical research and its potential impact on our lives.

Bench to bedside

While most people know and expect universities such as Newcastle to undertake research, a significant volume of research is also undertaken by Newcastle Hospitals Trust.

“Research, innovation and discovering new knowledge is a fundamental part of the trust’s strategy and we’re in a great place to do it,” says Angela.

“We all want to enable as many patients as possible to take part in and benefit from cutting- edge clinical research right here in the North East. It would be fantastic if we got to a point where every patient who comes into contact with the trust was offered the chance to be involved, to support continuous improvement of care and treatment now and in the future.

“The breadth and depth of what we achieve between the trust and university complements other research activity including the creativity and innovation of small and medium-sized enterprises at The Biosphere in Newcastle Helix; the region’s strength in pharmaceuticals; and exciting developments at the university around drug discovery and biomedical engineering. All of these provide lots of opportunities for patients to be part of world-class research.

“We’re about to start a new round of work to raise the profile and interest further, to ensure university and trust staff are mindful and aware of the importance of research, both on the work they do and on the lives of patients.”

Our greatest strength

When you meet anybody connected to the NJRO, their dedication to patients is inextricable from their commitment and connection to our region.

“Our greatest strength is our patients,” says consultant neurologist Dr Grainne Gorman. “It’s the generosity of their time, of their ideas…they help change policy and practice in medicine.”

Consultant urological surgeon Dr Chris Harding agrees. “Our patients’ enthusiasm for research is fantastic. They come with a tremendous sense of altruism and really want to help fellow sufferers.

“Another great thing about Newcastle is that there is such a concentration of global experts in various disciplines.”

Angela explains: “Our region is synonymous with world-changing discovery and innovation. And with kindness, generosity and selflessness, I’m really proud that this history and these values are being extended through the work of the team at the NJRO.”

More opportunities for clinical research will come following April’s announcement that Newcastle has been made one of only eight Academic Health Science Centres in the UK. And in May, Newcastle Hospitals Trust was one of five across England chosen to host a new regional Patient Recruitment Centre, part of a £7 million Government investment that will help people across the region take part in important late-phase commercial clinical research

In the words of Dr Michael Wright, consultant in clinical genetics and deputy medical director for Newcastle Hospitals Trust: “Research is already a key component of what we do in Newcastle Hospitals – to make that even stronger we need
to create more opportunities for both staff and patients to take part. We also need to build more partnerships locally, nationally and internationally, to make research here even more successful.”

Newcastle University
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