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Funding boost for new lab to develop tests for rare and chronic diseases


Experts at Newcastle University have been given a funding boost of £2.7 million to focus on developing new lab tests for rare and chronic diseases.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have made a joint award of £16m to be distributed among six projects around the country to develop molecular pathology tests.

The money is being used to create new centres for precision medicine - an approach which subdivides patients with a shared disease into groups based on, for instance, their risk of the disease progressing or how they respond to treatment. 

Identification of these different groups can help predict the most effective and safe intervention for individual patients. Furthermore, by understanding the underlying mechanisms that cause these differences, researchers can develop new interventions for those groups whose needs are currently not well met.

Molecular pathology is a major tool in personalised medicine. Small samples of blood or tissue are taken from the patient and analysed for levels of 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 Newcastle Proximity Laboratory is a collaboration between Newcastle University and Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It will focus on developing new tests for rare and chronic diseases and experts will also be involved in training the next generation of molecular pathologists who will be vital in the delivery of precision medicine.

Specialists in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Newcastle University will also help to develop ways of handling small samples and develop techniques for improving the accuracy of surgery for patients with cancer.

Professor Andy Hall (pictured) is Associate Dean of Bioresources at Newcastle University and Honorary Consultant in Experimental Haematology at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

He said: "Funding for our Proximity Laboratory is a major boost for research in Newcastle University and the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It will enable us to speed up the introduction of new ways of diagnosing and treating a wide range of diseases and help us to develop a workforce with the skills to unlock the full potential of our discoveries."

Last year, the MRC produced a report that warned that, while UK investment in personalised 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 its offers.

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

The universities are collaborating with 20 industrial partners, including leading diagnostic companies. 

Minister for Life Sciences, George Freeman, has welcomed the initiative. He said: “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 £1billion 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, says precision medicine is critical for selecting the right treatment for the right patient. 

He added: "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.”  

Press release adapted with thanks from the MRC 

published on: 27 July 2015