Bridging the clinical-research gap

Posted on January 20, 2020   by Dr Karen Robinson

The Microbiology Society and the Healthcare Infection Society (HIS) co-hosted a collaborative one-day workshop, titled ‘Bridging the clinical-research gap’ in London on 21 November 2019. The aim of this event was to bring academic and clinical microbiologists together to find ways to collaborate meaningfully, with an ultimate goal of improving the translation of research in infection prevention and control. Here, Dr Karen Robinson discusses her experience at the event.

This topic is of great interest to me personally since, despite being a non-clinical academic researcher, I have been working in a mostly clinical department for many years. I am based in the NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre and am very fortunate to have access to fantastic clinical facilities, along with a strong team of research technicians and nurses. This support underpins most of my group’s research, allowing us to collect Helicobacter pylori isolates and blood and tissue samples from patients attending endoscopy clinics here at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham.

I was delighted to be invited as a speaker and chair of the workshop, and it was an absolute privilege for me to represent the Society in this way. The audience was made up of fairly equal numbers of clinical and non-clinical researchers who were keen to engage in the discussions and asked questions throughout the day, making it a lively and interesting meeting for all involved.

Working alongside my excellent Co-Chair Dr James Price (Consultant Microbiologist, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust), we gave an introductory overview of our research, our networks of collaborators and our successes and failures. We also discussed some of the main benefits of collaborations between clinical and non-clinical researchers. For non-clinical microbiologists these included working with strains from the ‘real world’, as type culture strains have often been grown in labs for many years and become adapted to grow on plates. It is also real advantage to gain a better grasp of clinical guidelines and practices, as this enables researchers to work out where research is actually needed, and how innovations can be applied. Benefits to clinicians include developing skills in research techniques, opportunities to supervise PhD students and experience of different specialties and research cultures. Some of the challenges in developing such collaborations were also discussed, including how to communicate effectively, determining what each partner will contribute, understanding each other’s goals and motivations and the order of authors on papers and grant applications. If not handled properly, these issues can cause collaborations to fail.

After these introductions, Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green (Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust) and Professor Jodi Lindsay (St George’s, University of London) spoke about their experiences in setting up projects, applying for funding and running a collaborative project. Some key points that interested me were on how authorship positions can mean different things to different types of researchers. Dr Cloutman-Green recommended that having Materials Transfer Agreements in place is a good way to ensure that people who share their isolates are acknowledged properly in publications. Professor Lindsay highlighted the value of ESCMID study groups in facilitating clinical research collaborations.

Dr Helen Compton (National Institute for Health Research [NIHR]) and Dr Divya Shah (Wellcome Trust) then led a very informative discussion about research funding opportunities in their organisations. Dr Compton recommended that the Research Design Service is often a good first point of call, since they can help with the refinement of research questions and which funding scheme is most appropriate. Another useful contact is the NIHR Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure (NOCRI), which helps to connect research partners and provides tools and processes to support collaborative research. It was highlighted that the NIHR can help to build research collaborations and support investigators in their area of interest. Dr Shah emphasised some priority areas for funding from the Wellcome Trust, which included antimicrobial resistance and vaccines, and described some of the fellowships and other research award schemes. She particularly emphasised that the Wellcome Trust offers collaborative awards for team science projects involving cross-disciplinary research.

After lunch, the format of the event changed to a series of informal workshop sessions on topics that had been suggested by the attendees. These included ways of working, preparing a proposal or manuscript, ethics considerations and patient and public involvement in research. It was interesting that people did not seem to be aware of what Clinical Research Networks, NOCRI and the Research Design Service can provide. There also seemed to be a great deal of confusion about NHS Ethics, when it is needed and when it is not. Dr Cloutman-Green provided some brilliant insights and tricks, which were highly valued by people on the table discussions. She also mentioned that studies might fall under the category of a clinical service evaluation or audit, and the audit number is acceptable instead of an ethics reference for publications. Even very experienced clinical academics were surprised at this, and I was too. The IRAS online form is especially difficult for microbiologists, as it is not set up for this type of research. I passed along information on some useful websites. The Medical Research Council has a simple online tool that tells you whether you do or do not need ethics and gives a certificate at the end which can be very useful.

The most amazing part of all for me came at the end of the day. Delegates had been asked when registering if they wanted to deliver a two-minute pitch on a research project or resource, or highlight a need for collaborators. We had two volunteers, Dr Angharad Davies (Swansea University Medical School) and Dr Ginny Moore (Public Health England), and had arranged for them to do their pitches during the drinks and networking in the last hour of the day. Most people stayed for this lively session, and an extra four people stood up and gave a pitch on the spot. Everyone was very supportive and enthusiastic, and I saw many delegates swapping contact details afterwards.

I was very proud to be involved in this highly successful event, and it was really encouraging to see such huge interest and energetic participation from the delegates, facilitators and speakers. It shows that there is a need for further events on this important topic to keep the momentum going and help clinical and non-clinical researchers to join forces. With time, the joint efforts of the Microbiology Society and Healthcare Infection Society will help to improve the translation of infectious disease research for the benefit of patients.