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Q&A: The ins and outs of the Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative

MRI scan of a human head

An MRI scan of a human head (Image credit: Wikipedia/everyone’s idle)

Today Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the recipients of our Clinical Research Capabilities and Technologies Initiative, with 23 projects receiving a total of just over £170m. But what exactly are these ‘capabilities’, what do we hope to achieve, and where did all that money come from? Katherine Nightingale takes a closer look.

What do we mean by clinical research capabilities?

It’s about new technologies for clinical research. We’re all familiar with the idea of clinical research being about clinical trials to assess drugs, devices and diagnostics in people. Clinical research is often seen as the end of the ‘pipeline’ from making discoveries in the laboratory to helping patients, but that’s not the whole story.

We want to make clinical research in the UK also about studying disease at the molecular, cellular, organ and whole-body level ― and to do that researchers need new tools. This includes better body-imaging equipment, new technology for monitoring physiology, and ways of analysing the intricacies of disease in cells and tissues. Doing this needs big pieces of kit, as well as resources for building on the equipment in the future and using it in new ways.

Discoveries made in this way might then be fed back ‘into the lab’ or go on to influence further clinical research. The aim is that by funding these technologies, we’ll build on existing infrastructure, and speed up innovation by allowing researchers to explore new areas. Read more

Gut reaction: the impact of intestinal infections on polio vaccination

Edward Parker

Edward Parker

Could gut infections be making the standard polio vaccine ineffective in children in low-income countries? Edward Parker, a PhD student at Imperial College London is trying to find out, as he explains in his article commended in the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was never meant to last this long.

In 1988, when the campaign was launched, there was considerable optimism that polio would not see the end of the century. Although this deadline has long since passed, the progress made by the eradication initiative should not be underestimated: in what is arguably the greatest onslaught against a disease in history, polio has been reduced from an infection with a global distribution, responsible for 350,000 cases of paralysis each year, to one that is on the brink of extinction. Just 223 cases of the disease were reported in 2012 ― the lowest number on record.

But polio is a wily foe. Despite exhaustive vaccination campaigns, the virus has never been eliminated in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. What’s more, polio has recently been on the move. After cases in Ethiopia, Somalia, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Syria, and Iraq, in May 2014 the World Health Organization declared the spread of polio to be an international public health emergency. Read more

Computer-connected brains: science fiction or science future?

Thomas Hall

Thomas Hall

Newcastle University’s Thomas Hall listens to the chatter between neurons to find signals which could help restore movement to people paralysed by strokes or spinal injuries. He describes his research in his commended entry for the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award.

I visit Charlotte on a Saturday morning, arriving to the smell of fresh baking. After seeing her grandchildren, we head to the village hall for a surprisingly competitive monthly bake-off. But I’m not here just for tea and cake. A year ago, aged 73, Charlotte suffered a stroke, leaving her wheelchair-bound and with her right arm almost completely paralysed. One day she was working as a freelance architect; the next, she was unable to even write or dress herself.

But six months later, in 2034, Charlotte became one of around 200 patients worldwide fitted with a revolutionary new medical device called a ‘brain-computer interface’, or BCI.

Back at home, she shows me the scar on her scalp where doctors implanted thousands of microscopic electrodes in the part of her brain that controls her right arm — the part that was ‘disconnected’ by the stroke. Read more