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‘This is Manchester, we do things differently here’: the UK has been urged to look to Greater Manchester after a major review highlighted the region’s glowing life sciences research record
London, Oxford and Cambridge are famously referred to as the “golden triangle” of UK universities, and the same expression is used to describe the life sciences cluster in South East England.
That region continues to boast a proven world-class record, and for many it will be the area which springs to mind when you mention the delivery of clinical research. However, a different part of the country has recently been drawing attention with a glowing reputation for excellence in this field.
Greater Manchester and its regional health and social care providers has become a leading hub of commercial research delivery, providing the reliability which trial sponsors crave and the life-enhancing research participation opportunities which patients need.
This has been true for over 10 years, but in 2023 the rest of Britain has been encouraged to take a closer look at how Greater Manchester does things after the region was singled out for praise in a major independent review.
The Lord O’Shaughnessy Review was commissioned by the government in response to a challenging period for UK participation in commercial trials, as recruitment nationally dropped significantly between 2017-18 and 2021-22.
In his review, former health minister Lord James O’Shaughnessy, now Senior Partner at consultancy firm Newmarket Strategy and board member of Health Data Research UK, said that Greater Manchester had “bucked the trend”.
While national participation in commercially sponsored trials had fallen by 36 per cent, in Greater Manchester it rose by 19 per cent.
Published in May 2023, the review set out the actions needed to address key challenges within the national system. It included a case study on the success of Clinical Research Network Greater Manchester(CRN GM), one of the nation’s 15 regional CRNs which form part of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) funded by the Department of Health and Social Care.
With a budget of £22 million per year, it is CRN GM’s job to support health and care organisations across Greater Manchester, East Cheshire and East Lancashire to carry out high-quality research with the local population. It does this by meeting the costs of staff, facilities and equipment and by providing a range of services through its in-house departments.
Commercial research – studies or trials that are both sponsored and funded by independent pharmaceutical or medical technology companies – is an important element of this remit. Trials of this type play a crucial part in keeping the NHS at the forefront of modern treatments and research, while also giving patients and participants early access to the latest developments for diagnosing and treating illness. It also brings additional money into the NHS.
The Lord O’Shaughnessy Review found that CRN GM beat national average times for study set-up, which “accelerated their regional site start up timelines to an average of 51 days, in comparison to the national median for commercial study set-up of over 117 days since 2019”.
This means studies carried out by research teams at health and care organisations working in partnership with CRN GM have got off to an efficient start, as has the recruitment of participants. An average of 60 per cent of trials deliver to time and target across England. However, CRN GM has consistently recruited above the target of 80 per cent for the last 10 years.
This means that more trials in the region have been completed on time, allowing data to be analysed sooner and making it possible for findings to be implemented faster. This has been achieved across a range of disease areas and trial phases.
The review pointed to CRN GM’s “strong research infrastructure and talented workforce” and its “collaboration between healthcare providers, academia and industry”. It added: “CRN Greater Manchester works closely with industry partners and in industry clusters to deliver high-quality research studies that meet the needs of both local communities and international sponsors.”
The NHS Confederation, the membership organisation which speaks for the healthcare system across the UK, encouraged other regions to take note of the CRN GM model, publishing a case study on how UK regions could take tips from a “culture of shared learning, collaboration and innovation”.
Sarah Fallon, Chief Operating Officer of CRN Greater Manchester, agrees that strong partnerships have been a key factor. “Our success in this area [of commercial research] has been possible thanks to the ambitions and joint working of our region’s leaders, provider partners, delivery teams and investigators,” she said. “The achievements outlined in the Lord O’Shaughnessy report could not have happened without a full-system approach and years of hard work across Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and East Cheshire.”
CRN GM’s success has not been limited to its commercial research record, however.
The O’Shaughnessy Review was published as the organisation won bronze in the Clinical Site Team of the Year category at the PharmaTimes International Clinical Researcher of the Year Awards 2023. The latter was in recognition of how CRN GM adapted its pandemic strategies for research delivery into business as usual, including the recruitment of large quantities of participants during single weekend sessions via a pioneering “high throughout model”.
A video showing how Greater Manchester’ state-of-the-art Research Van travels to local communities to give people the opportunity to be part of research
Other bespoke strategies to boost the inclusivity of research have included the vision for, and investment in, a state-of-the-art research van equipped with a clinical space and pharmacy. This has been designed to take research on the road away from just hospitals, and widen opportunities for people to be part of research by making it easier to reach.
The organisation also has a successful consent-to-approach database with over 12,000 people registered. This service allows people across the North West to hear about a range of research projects they might like to get involved in, and supports investigators to find suitable participants to be part of their research.
CRN GM also received national acclaim for its community-based approaches to research, notably its strong engagement with South Asian communities traditionally under-represented in research. This has earned a shortlisting in the 2023 Health Service Journal Awards category for NHS Race Equality. CRN GM’s flagship model has involved visiting mosques to speak with people of Islamic faith following Friday prayers and recruiting 50 to 60 participants at a time to a major study looking at links between genetics and health issues prevalent among people of Bangladeshi heritage.
Over the coming year, CRN GM is approaching an exciting new chapter as part of a national transition of the 15 NIHR Clinical Research Networks into 12 NIHR Research Delivery Networks. From October 2024, CRN GM will merge with its neighbouring North West Coast CRN to become the North West Research Delivery Network.
Under the new arrangement, the network will serve the entire North West and more than seven million people, presenting a wealth of opportunities as it becomes the nation’s biggest network with a population larger than many European countries.
To find out more about how CRN Greater Manchester can help carry out your research in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and East Cheshire, visit its Study Support Service website.