Barts Life Sciences – a partnership between Queen Mary University of London and Barts Health NHS Trust – has been awarded £6.7m by Barts Charity to research new ways to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a variety of diseases. The diseases that will be studied include COVID-19, cancer, heart disease and diabetes, which affect many in the east London population.
Barts Health is one of the largest NHS Trusts in the UK, caring for around 2.5 million patients in one of the most diverse and disadvantaged areas of the UK. This new multi-million-pound award will enable Barts Life Sciences to make better use of the information collected during the course of a person’s NHS care – a currently untapped and underused source of data – which will be used for the benefit of patients and the wider population.
The data will be depersonalised and only shared with key, relevant researchers for analysis. The researchers will look for patterns and clues in the data which could teach them more about these diseases and in turn, how to better prevent, diagnose and treat them. The long-term aim is to deliver ‘precision medicine’ – to provide each patient with a tailored plan for how to reduce their chances of developing diseases and deliver targeted treatments.
Ensuring patient cofidentiality
Recent studies by Queen Mary researchers have shown the benefits of research using patient data. By analysing COVID-19 data in east London, they have recently helped to explain why the area has seen some of the highest cases and deaths in the UK, by confirming that ethnic minorities have twice the risk of developing COVID-19 compared with those from White backgrounds. They are also part of a national effort to develop and deliver a new tool to identify patients at higher risk of COVID-19. East London will be one of the first areas in the country to use this tool, which will help GPs find and protect high-risk patients.
To ensure that patient confidentiality is maintained at all times, the funding also supports a dedicated information governance and research management team. They will oversee the use of patient data, ensuring it is accessed responsibly and safely at all times and in accordance with legal and ethical standards as set out in the Data Protection Act, and by the National Data Guardian and the Health Research Authority.
Claude Chelala, Professor of Bioinformatics at Queen Mary University of London, said: “There is a huge wealth of patient data which is not currently being used as well as it could be for the NHS or for patients. This funding hopes to change that. We are bringing together GPs, surgeons, data and computer scientists and – at the heart of it all – patients, without whom work like this would not be possible.
“Working together, we will unlock the potential of this patient data and create meaningful information which can be used to transform the way, and speed at which, we find new treatments and prevent future health problems. This will ensure patients have a better chance of early diagnosis and are offered more effective treatment options, better suited to them and their disease.”
Accelerating the discovery of personalised medicine
Fiona Miller Smith, chief executive of Barts Charity which awarded the funding, said: “This is an incredibly important area of research. We are extremely proud to make this commitment not only to the people of east London, but to patients worldwide. We have seen first-hand through our previous work with the Trust and the University the impact data-led solutions can have for patients across a broad range of conditions, helping to find treatments where none previously existed. We are delighted to be supporting Barts Life Sciences in its goal to transform patient outcomes through the better understanding and analysis of data and look forward to bringing together some of the best minds to do so.”
Panos Deloukas, Programme Lead and Dean for Life Sciences at Queen Mary University of London said: “This new funding provides us with a unique opportunity to make full use of the rich and diverse Barts Health patient data, in the collaborative, interdisciplinary environment of Barts Life Sciences. By appropriately and responsibly using this patient data, we can accelerate the discovery of pioneering and effective personalised medicine and translate healthcare innovations into tangible benefits for those in east London and beyond. Ultimately, we want to develop new personalised ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating a range of diseases, including inflammatory disorders, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Recruiting professors and programme managers
The funding will also be used to recruit three new professors to Queen Mary University of London and the Barts Life Sciences partnership. These individuals will be world experts in computer health sciences and lead the curation and analysis of patient data. The team are also recruiting a Programme Manager.
Reverend Alan Green, Chair of Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum, said: “We know that the east London population are disproportionally affected by a variety of diseases, including diabetes and Coivd-19. Research like this, which uses information from the local population to help find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat these and other diseases in a more informed and targeted way is fantastic. It will truly benefit a diverse population that has some of the highest rates of illness in London and the UK.”