National Physical Laboratory re-launched to improve access to health innovations
NPL’s new approach informed by government priorities, consultancy with industry and the NHS, and a century of expertise, will see it focus on some of the world’s biggest health challenges, from supporting the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and dementia, to reducing attrition rates in drug development, to creating new antibiotics.
The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK’s National Measurement Institute, is re-launching to help ensure the UK continues to lead the world in translating life sciences research, accelerating access to new diagnosis and treatment techniques, and helping to support rapid adoption of advanced healthcare technologies across the country.
The re-launch is in direct response to government policy, including the Accelerated Access Review and more recently the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy report, as well as extensive consultation with pharmaceutical companies, clinicians and equipment manufacturers.
The re-launch sees NPL unveiling a number of new programmes and facilities to accelerate access to medical innovation:
- Establishing a UK multi-modal mass spectrometry imaging facility to deliver world-beating imaging of tumours and to support chemical and biological imaging needs of biomedical researchers in industry and academia. The facility is the first of its kind in the UK, and will focus on more personalised diagnosis through better understanding of disease, more effective treatments of cancer (including by quantifying the extent of a tumour), and reducing time and costs in drug development (by identifying failing drug formulations earlier in the development process before expensive clinical trials).
- Creating a new centre to accelerate medical imaging technologies through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The centre will support companies developing innovative imaging technologies to accelerate development and adoption of their products, with an initial focus on new medical imaging technologies. Working closely with a broad range of stakeholders (large companies and SMEs in the medical equipment and pharmaceutical sectors, leading clinicians, academic groups and Innovate UK Catapults), NPL will ensure that the latest measurement techniques and best practice to assess, validate and commission innovative imaging technologies are developed and widely adopted.
- Creating a new family of antibiotics to fight antimicrobial resistance (AMR). NPL is working to discover, screen and validate new classes of antimicrobials with Ingenza and the University of Plymouth, through an Innovate UK grant, to tackle AMR, a problem that some estimate could cause up to 10 million deaths each year by 2050 . The project will use a range of antimicrobials, called epidermicins, that naturally target superbugs like MRSA, and look to enhance the range of bacteria they can kill as well as the potency at which they can do this. The project will also look to scale up production of these antimicrobials for further testing and clinical trials, to accelerate their development. In addition to this project, NPL is working with University College London to convert a breast milk protein into an artificial virus that kills bacteria on contact.
- Currently in development, a new medical device to improve diabetic life expectancy and quality of life, using thermal mapping (thermography), funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). NPL’s breakthrough medical imaging device, called DFIRST, uses temperature changes – identifiable before visible signs – which provide an early alert of problems and enable preventative action, reducing or even eliminating the ulceration and associated risk of infection. The technology is potentially suitable for home use, empowering patients in their own care and monitoring risk throughout their life.
- Developing a new ultrasound imaging system for breast cancer diagnosis that has the potential to provide a standardised high-quality image without the need for highly skilled operators that has the added advantage of being less uncomfortable, and lower cost, with no side effects. This does not use x-rays (so the patient isn’t exposed to radiation) and the screening is carried out with the breast submerged in warm water, without compression, which is a more comfortable experience for the patient. Its capability to better differentiate tissue properties should then ensure more accurate diagnosis.
- NPL plays a key role in ensuring the safe and improved uptake of new radiotherapy techniques helping to ensure that new innovations in treatment provide the better patient outcomes that they promise. The UK has been slower to adopt new high-energy proton beam therapy (PBT) than other countries; however, cutting edge PBT technology is now being adopted across both NHS and private centres in the UK. To help meet this challenge, NPL has established a physics research consortium with members from NHS centres and academia and is running regular workshops aimed at promoting research collaborations within the UK.
- Harnessing big data to improve understanding of epidemics. NPL is working with the Royal College of General Practitioners’ Research and Surveillance Centre (RCGP RSC) network to provide more accurate surveillance of diseases and epidemics in the UK, such as influenza. The network has been running for 50 years and uses patient records to identify incident rates – the system was vital in understanding and responding to the swine flu epidemic in 2009. Medical records are not always accurate, and NPL is bringing its data mining expertise to address this, helping to improve retrospective data to better identify trends, and assess the efficacy of treatments.
NPL and Cancer Research UK
Dr Michael Adeogun, Head of Life Sciences & Health at NPL, said: “We know from Cancer Research UK’s forecasts that half of us will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in our lifetime, and many more will be affected by the disease in other ways . New advances are being developed every day to tackle this disease and other chronic conditions, but as incidence rates increase, there is more to be done to improve survival rates. At NPL, we are working to shape the future of healthcare, to get new and more effective diagnostic tools, treatments, and medical technologies to patients more quickly. Only through an established measurement infrastructure can we enable the consistent delivery of ‘world-class’ cancer care across the NHS by 2020, accelerate the discovery and development of new therapies, and provide the confidence to adopt new personalised medicine techniques to deliver better patient outcomes and to reduce costs for the NHS.”
Dr Peter Thompson, CEO of NPL, said: “Many people are unaware of the scope, scale or quality of work that NPL delivers, or the part that it has played in some of the biggest discoveries in modern history. The effects of the science, technology and engineering that NPL delivers are felt by everyone, everywhere. After a century as the silent partner to industry, we are proud to re-launch NPL, to ensure it can further accelerate UK industry and deliver extraordinary impact on our economy and quality of life for many years to come.”
Life sciences are a major component of the current economic base of the UK with the sector generating £64bn of turnover, and employing more than 233,000 scientists and staff . Yet there are challenges in this area. For example, the UK has one of the lowest age-standardised cancer incidence rates of rich countries, but one of the highest mortality rates; fewer UK citizens survive a diagnosis of cancer than they should. In addition, an ageing population is leading to a rise in chronic conditions, such as diabetes which make patients more susceptible to infections. While the NHS spends approximately £12bn a year on drug treatments in England alone, these are only effective in 30-60% of the population.
For more than a century, NPL has maintained the UK’s measurement standards, and provided technologies and skills based on those standards for industry and the healthcare system. It currently provides the underpinning confidence in radiotherapy treatments across all UK treatment centres, to ensure accuracy and effectiveness of treatment while minimising side effects. In re-launching, NPL will expand its role in providing traceability of, and confidence in, new diagnostic tools, treatments, and medical technologies, to get them from the lab to patients more quickly, and to deliver increasingly personalised treatment.