Deciphering Health: New Swansea University Centre puts health records at the heart of UK medical research

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The Medical Research Council (MRC) today announces an historic £19 million investment to establish four e-health research Centres of Excellence in Swansea, London, Manchester and Dundee. The announcement is made today by the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts.

This is Swansea University’s first MRC Centre and is testament to the investment from Welsh Government and the European Union in the skills and expertise at the Institute of Life Science, College of Medicine, Swansea University.

The Centre, known as CIPHER (Centre for Improving Population Health through E-Health Research) will investigate a wide range of conditions that place a huge burden on the UK population, including diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and child and maternal health. CIPHER will be led by Professor Ronan Lyons and Professor David Ford.

On hearing the news, Professor Lyons said: “We are delighted that our Welsh-led bid has been successful in a highly contested field. We owe our success to the fantastic collaboration we were able to create between academic units across Wales and internationally, with the active support of the NHS, Welsh Government, third sector organisations and members of the public. We look forward to building on our success in carrying out research which makes a real impact in improving the health and wellbeing of patients and the Welsh population.”

Professor Ford added: “CIPHER represents a serious step forward in the way health research is conducted.  At Swansea, we have a history of using advanced high powered computing and with the help of HPC Wales, we can use powerful computer systems to meet the challenges of analysing the huge volume of data collected by the NHS and public sector, turning it into research findings that help us all to understand illness and disease and to improve health policy making.  Our CIPHER partnerships, with some of the best scientists in the world, allow us to focus on important population health topics.  CIPHER will also address the UK-wide shortage of skilled health informaticians, delivering education and training opportunities to develop the skilled, experienced work force the UK needs.” 

Aimed at maximising the unique value of the NHS, each of the four Centres will undertake cutting edge research that links e-health records with other forms of research and routinely collected data, leading to patient and public benefit and ensuring the UK remains at the forefront of global medical research.

By combining clinical, social and research data, researchers aim to identify more effective treatments, improve drug safety, assess risks to public health and study the causes of diseases and disability. The Centres will also act as a vital point of contact for industry, the NHS and policy makers.

A network will now be formed to capitalise on the expertise in the Centres, and to encourage wider collaborations among UK and international researchers to make sure there are effective links between different types of health and social data sets. The Centres will also offer career development and training opportunities to increase the UK’s capacity and capability in research using health records.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: “Thanks to the NHS and the UK’s world-leading research base, we are uniquely positioned to use patient data to study disease and develop better treatments. The e-health centres are the first of their kind and have the potential to revolutionise health research. They will provide a vital insight into conditions affecting millions of people and ultimately bring benefits for patients.”

Professor Sir John Savill, chief executive of the MRC, says: ‘‘This is a watershed moment for data research and for the Medical Research Council which I believe will deliver the benefits of e-health research, improving patient care over the coming years.  The way in which the partner organisations have come together to invest in e-health underpins its importance and will help establish the UK as a world leader in this field.”

The members of the E-Health Research Initiative who have jointly-funded the four Centres are: Arthritis Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the Chief Scientist Office (Scottish Government Health Directorates), the Economic and Social Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research, the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (Welsh Government) and the Wellcome Trust.