A vision on a grand scale

A vision on a grand scale

Birmingham will soon be home to one of the world’s most sophisticated centres for healthcare research, clinical innovation and training – the Instutite of Translational Medicine (ITM). Ian Halstead talked to two of its founding fathers.

There’s nothing much to note about the towering facade of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s old North Block… unless you’re a devotee of Art Deco. Inside though, it’s undergoing a renaissance to become an internationally-noted location where clinicians, researchers and industry come together to cure diseases, save lives and train healthcare workers of the future.

Birmingham’s best-known architect, Glenn Howells, is leading the physical transformation, and the ITM project is being delivered by Birmingham Health Partners. The latter is a collaboration between University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) NHS Foundation Trust, the University of Birmingham (UoB) and Birmingham Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

The ITM’s multi-disciplinary structure will allow new treatments and drugs to move efficiently from the discovery phase, through development, clinical trials and advanced studies, then on to patients throughout the UK and across the globe.

It’s a vision on a grand scale, and the centre is predicted to create more than 2,000 jobs long-term via clinical trials and diagnostics, and in life sciences through spin-outs, expansion of current ventures and inward investment.

UoB Professor David Adams, a director of Birmingham Health Partners, explains: “The catalyst was that although we have great research programmes, tremendous people,
real expertise in clinical trials, and fantastic access to a very diverse population, we lacked the infrastructure to bring everything together to drive innovations forward,” he admits.

“Getting money from the City Deal was tremendous, because we got £12m to match our other funding, and the original idea was to put up a new building, but then the QE moved out of the North Block.

“There will be a clinical research unit on the ground-floor, which will be a fantastic facility, and when you enter the main door, there will be a lecture room, a social area and a coffee bar, so it’ll be a great place to interact.

“On the fifth floor, there’ll be a laboratory to deliver innovative forms of precision medicine, which will be a very important element. There’ll also be lots of space for doctors, nurses, scientists, statisticians and the clinical trials people to collaborate.

“Their presence will enable us to take full advantage of the tremendous work done by Daniel Ray and the informatics team at UHB, so we’ll be accessing data virtually in real-time.”

The ITM will also include space for commercial partners and incubator units for start-ups, generating a sustainable income stream to help fund its operations. Prof Adams expects some tenants to set up their own projects, whilst others will take space for trials or studies relating to other projects based in the building. No decision has yet been made on who will head the institute, but an interim director is in place, and a permanent appointment is likely to be made before the phased opening programme begins in the summer.

The ITM’s model – of winning public sector finance to create a centre bringing scientists, doctors and researchers together – came from another UoB professor, Charlie Craddock. He is the founding director of Birmingham’s Centre for Clinical Haematology, which has earned a global reputation for developing and delivering novel drug and transplant therapies, and also hosts one of the UK’s largest stem cell transplant programmes.

Prof Craddock says: “Birmingham has long been a crucible of creativity, but we are now seeing a healthcare cluster evolving on an international scale – it’s very special.

Professor Charlie Craddock

“Since the discovery of the structure of DNA, trillions of pounds have been invested in laboratory-based research, and we have gained a profound understanding of what can go wrong in a body, because of cancer, strokes, cardio-vascular diseases and other conditions.

“However, there was very little progress in identifying treatment options until the last 10 or 15 years, and very little improvement in patient outcomes. Now though, the big pharma and biotech companies are starting to use all this data to create a huge pipeline of new drugs and treatments.

“The urgent priority now is to discover if these innovations are safe, clinically effective and capable of being produced in scale, otherwise they will just sit on doctors’ shelves for years. At the moment though, we are very slow at identifying if these drugs and treatments are safe, reliable and useful.”

Prof Craddock believes Birmingham is uniquely placed to dramatically speed up that critical process, and it’s not a word he uses lightly. “One of the game-changers is a very large and diverse population, so you could recruit at least 50 patients a year for clinical trials. There are six million people within an hour’s drive, so there’s great access and also tremendous ethnic diversity,” he says. “There’s no merit in developing drugs which work for Caucasians, but not for Indians, and that diversity isn’t found elsewhere. If the pharma and biotech companies go to small cities they can’t find enough patients for trials.

“Birmingham also has fantastically good hospitals, and a wonderful skills-base, to carry out these trials and analyse the data. Best of all, everything is all spread across one location and connectivity is easy.

“When I came here in 1999, having worked in Seattle and London, it was because I could see it was going to be an enormously exciting time for translational medicine, and I genuinely do not think there is a better place in the world for the ITM to be.”

The Centre for Clinical Haematology received seed-corn funding of £2m from Advantage West Midlands, and over the last decade, Prof Craddock calculates it has received £25m of drugs for free from the pharma companies because of the quality and efficiency of its clinical trials. “Many people are alive because of those trials, and we also created 150 jobs,” he says.  “That model worked for us, so we thought why not try it in other areas of healthcare, which led to the idea of creating a Life Science Campus in Birmingham, on the old Yuasa Batteries’ site.

“Steve Hollis (deputy chair of the Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP) was brilliant at identifying sources of funding, and when that site is ready, it will focus on data and genomics. At the same time, we need to attract more FDI (foreign direct investment) and engage more effectively with SMEs in this region.

”If we get everything right, and I certainly believe we will, this area could easily become the healthcare equivalent of Silicon Valley, and that’s no exaggeration.”