One of the most exciting developments in clinical research in decades is taking place at the University of Leeds, led by our professor of cancer medicine Peter Selby in collaboration with the Medical Research Council.
The creation of a new network for world-class researchers in subjects such as medicines for children, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, mental health and strokes will benefit patients through translating cutting-edge research into new forms of treatment and the best possible chance of recovery.
In 2001, Professor Selby set up the National Cancer Research Network (NCRN). The network has already doubled the number of people involved in cancer clinical trials from 7,500 to 20,000 each year in England and is improving the quality and participation in clinical cancer research.
The model is now being extended across a wide range of diseases as the UK Clinical Research Network. The aim is to ensure that more patients benefit from leading edge medical research as quickly as possible and, following a competitive tender, Leeds is again to be at the forefront of the work.
“The creation of the UK Clinical Research Network is the most exciting development in clinical research nationally – or indeed internationally – in recent decades,” Professor Selby said. “It will bring together partner organisations to speed up the development of new medicines and treatments from the laboratory to the patient’s bedside, meaning more patients benefit from the latest scientific advances and ensure health care is based on sound evidence. Our evidence-based approach should place the UK at the forefront of clinical research.” In addition, the news means the University of Leeds can truly claim a world-class level of expertise, Professor Selby said, enabling it to recruit some 35 staff to begin the new work.
The new network will be co-ordinated by a consortium of the University of Leeds, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust, University College London and the Medical Research Council clinical trials unit in London. The co-ordinating centre will be co-located in Leeds and London and will be directed by Professor Selby and Professor Janet Darbyshire of the Medical Research Council clinical trials unit.
The government is providing substantial funding. In the last budget the health secretary announced an extra £100m a year by 2008 for research and development in the priority areas, the biggest ever increase in research funding targeting these diseases.
Professor Selby said that recent scientific advances in cell and molecular biology, molecular genetics, immunology and pharmacology had radically improved our basic understanding of the mechanisms of disease – and demonstrated many potential new approaches to its prevention, diagnosis and treatment. But turning this basic science into patient benefit required more high quality clinical research, which must be carried out against the background of ever increasing regulation to ensure patient safety.
In the UK these scientific needs have been addressed by substantial new government investment and the creation of networks designed to ensure rapid progress in clinical research. For research has shown that cancer patients being treated in units where a large proportion are enlisted on clinical trials tend to do better than the average, partly because trials generally bring a better standard of care. “However, it can be difficult and time-consuming to get patients admitted to trials and many clinicians lack the time or resources to handle the extra workload. But the cancer network has proved it is possible to support the clinical researchers making admission into trials swifter and so speeding up the whole research effort.
Professor Selby said his team achieved their success by liaising closely with 34 local cancer networks up and down the country. “We aimed to give guidance centrally while encouraging local ownership,” he said. “Although ring-fenced money is clearly vital, our success was really about motivating people to come on board.” Once patients and clinicians had agreed to take part in trials, network staff were able to take over many of the difficult steps like co-ordinating disparate funding bodies, organising peer reviews and gaining regulatory approval for trials, as well as supporting patients in trials. The enthusiasm and support of patients has been a wonderful element in the NCRN.
Professor Selby set up a specialist medical oncology service in Leeds in 1988 and, with support from the NHS and other agencies and it has expanded around Yorkshire to become one of the country’s largest and most successful regional oncology services and training programmes. He was also a leading member of the expert advisory group which proposed – and achieved – the reorganisation of cancer services in the UK.
“This is an exciting time for researchers who are seeking to take the major advances of the biology laboratories and develop them into successful medical care,” he said. “In about five years time I fully expect the clinical research network to be even more comprehensive, covering most if not all the main healthcare areas – that is our ultimate aim.