Major projects to bring innovative pathology tests to patients for better treatment

27 Jul 2015 14:33:11.800
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The University of Nottingham and Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust have won a substantial share of a £16m grant from The Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop molecular pathology tests which will help deliver better targeted, more effective treatments - known as 'stratified medicine' - across a wide range of disease areas.

The new Nottingham Molecular Pathology Node, a collaborative research programme between the University, the NHS Trust and several industrial partners, will develop world leading translational molecular diagnostic capabilities in gastrointestinal, liver and respiratory diseases. 

Professor Alan Knox, Professor in Respiratory Medicine, and Head of the School of Medicine's Division of Respiratory Medicine, said: “This research will help ensure that in future patients are treated with the right drug for their condition at the most appropriate time and there will be suitable biomarkers to individually evaluate patients' responses to treatment. In the medium to long term this is likely to improve the quality of life and longevity of patients with a number of conditions, who currently have high morbidity and mortality. There is therefore a real possibility of a major impact on the nation's health.”
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Stratified - or precision - medicine is an approach which subdivides patients who have the same disease into groups based on, for instance, the relative risk of their disease progressing or how well they respond to a particular drug treatment. Identification of these different groups can help researchers predict the most effective and safest intervention for individual patients in those sub-groups. In addition, by understanding the underlying mechanisms that cause these differences, researchers can develop new interventions for those groups whose needs are currently not well met.

Biomarker Research and Knowledge Transfer

Molecular pathology is a major tool in stratified medicine. Tiny samples of blood or tissue are taken from the patient – usually with minimal discomfort because of the small amount taken and the use of minimally-invasive methods of collection. The samples are then analysed for levels of large molecules (such as proteins and DNA). Combining these results with other information, such as imaging and clinical data, enables the precise subdivision of patients.  

The Nottingham Molecular Pathology Node for Integrated Multi-platform Biomarker Research and Knowledge Transfer has received £2.4m from the MRC and EPSRC to bring together informatics, computational modelling and molecular pathology to find new biomarkers for a range of diseases – particularly those affecting the digestive and respiratory systems and the liver. These new markers will help doctors and pharmaceutical companies to identify the best treatments for patients. Another important feature of the Node is that it will train young researchers in these areas and share knowledge with other Nodes and industrial partners to help accelerate progress and strengthen research and development capabilities.

Why target specific disease areas?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) affects over one million people in the UK and kills 25,000 people a year. Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) is commoner than all leukaemias combined and kills 50 per cent of patients within three years of diagnosis. Nottingham hosts the UK's National Centre for Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a disease which has no effective treatment. Cystic Fibrosis (CF), the commonest life-threatening genetic disorder among people of European descent whose and median age of death is 35-40 is usually due to Pseudomonas bacterial infection. Hepatitis B and C affect more than 500,000 people in the UK and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is the commonest chronic liver disease. Helicobacter pylori bacterial infection affects one in six people in the UK and causes both peptic ulceration and gastric cancer.

Professor Knox said: “The work will lead to the development and clinical application of molecular diagnostics and computer modeling algorithms in several important infective, inflammatory and fibrotic diseases of the respiratory, gastro-intestinal systems and liver and will likely be applicable to diseases in other organ systems.” 

Building UK capacity for molecular pathology

Last year, the MRC produced a report that warned that, while UK investment in stratified medicine has reached nearly £200 million in the last four years, the UK capacity for molecular pathology needed to be increased in order to capture the potential patient and economic benefits stratification offers. 

To support molecular pathology, the MRC and EPSRC have supported six nodes led by the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle and Nottingham. Each node brings researchers, clinicians and industry together to develop molecular diagnostic tools, to enable stratification, in disease areas such as cancer, respiratory diseases, digestive disease, infections, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and lupus. 

Six ‘nodes’ and 20 industrial partners

The six nodes are collaborating with 20 industrial partners, including leading diagnostic and instrumentation companies and innovative technology and data SMEs. 

Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman welcomed the initiative, saying: “Advances in medical genetics and the use of data are making it possible to design a new generation of 'Stratified' or 'Precision' medicines which work more effectively, with fewer side effects, in more targeted groups of patients. In cancer this is leading to personally-tailored therapies. As an integrated healthcare system underpinned by our £1 billion per annum National Institute for Health Research expenditure, the NHS is perfectly placed to pioneer this field. This £16 million investment will enhance our UK-wide capability to deliver 21st century diagnostics and complement initiatives such as the Precision Medicine Catapult Centre to make sure that ground-breaking medicines and technologies are adopted by the NHS and delivered to patients as quickly as possible.”

Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive at the MRC, said: “These new tools are critical for selecting the right treatment for the right patient. Being able to precisely target a treatment means maximum benefit for the patient – they receive a treatment that works for them and with fewer unpleasant side-effects.  But it also delivers economic benefit because money and time are not wasted on ineffective treatments.”  

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC’s Chief Executive, said: “These awards bring together multidisciplinary teams to support innovation and develop molecular diagnostics. Working in partnership with the MRC enables us to accelerate the translation of research towards application in a clinical setting, and builds on EPSRC’s underpinning investment in analytical science.” 

Dr Suzy Lishman, President of The Royal College of Pathologists, said: “Molecular pathology will revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat disease, with patients receiving treatment tailored to their particular condition. This £16m award comes at crucial time and will help ensure that medicine and industry work together to develop molecular pathology tests for the benefit of patients with a wide range of conditions. Pathology has always been central to diagnosis but plays an even more vital role in stratified medicine. This investment will help ensure that the UK has the molecular pathology capacity that it needs to provide world-leading diagnostics and the best possible care for patients.”

Doris-Ann Williams MBE, Chief Executive of The British In Vitro Diagnostics Association (BIVDA), said: “Improved access to diagnostics is absolutely fundamental for enhanced patient care of the 21st century, so I am delighted by the creation of the pathology nodes. These will play a significant role in fostering collaboration between industry, clinicians and academia. The Government’s life science policy means the UK is leading the world in the support of diagnostics and the recognition of their intrinsic value to healthcare.”  

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the THE Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top one per cent of universities by the QS World University Rankings, and 8th in the UK by research power according to REF 2014.

The University of Nottingham in Malaysia (UNMC) is holding events throughout 2015 to celebrate 15 years as a pioneer of transnational education. Based in Semenyih, UNMC was established as the UK's first overseas campus in Malaysia and one of the first world-wide.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Alan Knox in the School of Medicine, at The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 823 1713,; or the MRC press office on +44 (0)207 395 2276 (out of hours: +44 (0)781 842 7297) or email; or Jack Adlam, Senior Communications Manager at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust on +44 (0)115 924 9924 ext 63763,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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