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Helping to build a healthier society

There are almost eight billion people living on earth, all with different access to healthcare. For some this is free and can be found on their doorstep, but for others it comes at a significant financial cost or requires days of travelling to reach the nearest doctor.

Whatever the circumstances people face, one of the key questions at the forefront of research at Northumbria University is how can we help people live well, and for longer?

From diet and nutrition, through to infectious disease, long-term and age-related conditions, it is vital that we explore new, sustainable, and effective ways of improving health and wellbeing for all. 

Northumbria’s researchers work closely with leading public health bodies, global organisations, and charities to design, implement and evaluate new ways of working to help improve care for people living health issues, and for those supporting them.

COVID-19 has of course been at the forefront of attention in recent times. With an impressive DNA sequencing research facility and world-leading expert researchers, Northumbria University was invited to join a national consortium, consisting of 16 UK universities, to help map how the coronavirus spreads and evolves. More than 100,000 SARS-Cov-2 genomes have been sequenced in Northumbria’s labs to date, including two of the very first samples of what became known as the highly contagious Delta variant.

“If Northumbria University was a nation state, we would have ranked 21st in the world in terms of the sheer number of sequences we contributed, so we were higher than most countries in northern and central Europe at one point, which was pretty impressive,” said Dr Matt Bashton, a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Fellow in Applied Sciences. Dr Bashton has created a software tool which can be used to examine coronavirus samples anywhere in the world. “This new tool allows us to judge the likely impact that new variants of the virus have almost instantly as they emerge. It is vital we keep monitoring the virus and how it’s changing to protect the future of humanity.”

Elsewhere, innovative research into astronaut health is having a positive impact on people with spinal and muscular conditions, creating new understanding around the impact of gravity on the human body. Researchers are working on earth-based studies with NASA and the European Space Agency, using exposure to artificial gravity to investigate how bodies decondition in space and how this can help to prevent spinal problems from developing.

Managing diseases

 A major study into Medulloblastoma, the most common malignant childhood brain tumour, has led to massive improvements in treatment for this disease. Northumbria experts have been able to reduce diagnostic time for a particular type of this cancer from three to four weeks to three to four days. This helps to rapidly identify patients who can receive a less invasive dose of radiotherapy, meaning they have less long-term side effects from their treatment.

Researchers have also been examining current models of care for people living with Parkinson’s Disease, a chronic neurological condition affecting up to 10 million people worldwide. Findings from research conducted by Northumbria have led to new policies and best practice guidelines which are boosting quality of life for those affected by this life-changing disease, as well as, crucially, those caring for them.

A 2015 report from The Health Foundation highlighted that while the government spends £134 billion per year on the National Health Service, informal carers are providing an estimated £132 billion of unpaid care per year. “While there is clearly a need to focus on how we can best support people with Parkinson’s Disease, an important aspect of our research has been assessing the impact on those who provide informal care, such as a spouse, sibling, child or even friend,” said Professor Annette Hand, a Clinical Academic Professor in Nursing.

“Many carers are struggling to get the support from health and care services that they need, particularly as the disease advances and higher levels of care are required, said Professor Hand. “This burden leads to caregiver strain, which in turn, puts added pressure on our health and social care sector.”

Improving social care

To reduce this strain, researchers have found fresh solutions at individual and organisational levels to improve the ability of the health and social care workforce to work innovatively and effectively. Using the principles of Positive Behavioural Support – an approach which aims to encourage long-term positive changes in people’s behaviour to improve their quality of life – Northumbria researchers brought transformation to the sector across the North of England, finding new ways for leadership teams to recruit, support and manage their teams. The study proved so successful that it was rolled out to other areas, including primary care, prisons and for those working with older people with complex needs, which is an increasingly demanding area for the sector.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the world today is the ageing society,” said Professor Glenda Cook, of the Department of Nursing, Midwifery and Health who specialises in researching the needs of older people. Professor Cook has collaborated with architects, social landlords and local authorities and has investigated smart technologies to create homes where people can live independently for longer, rather than moving into residential care.

“There has been a lot of time and effort to understand what good housing with integrated health and care services for older people would look like,” she explained. “Through good design and architects, health and care professionals addressing the problems that people face, we can create a home where people may be able to live for as long as they want. Alongside this, incredible societal impact can be achieved through use of digital technologies that are becoming widely available to everyone and can support independence and improve quality of life.”

Optimising Health 

From patients waiting to undergo major surgery to some of the world’s most elite athletes, Northumbria is leading the thinking in examining ways that nutrition, exercise, and recovery can improve health across a broad spectrum of the population.

Around 1.5 million major surgical procedures are performed annually in the UK, which put huge strain on the body both during and after surgery. To find new ways to support patients due to go through invasive surgery, Northumbria academics have discovered that targeted exercise regimes can bring significant improvements for patients, both in their physical fitness and their mental health. Their findings have led to the development of the world’s first clinical guideline on preoperative exercise training for people awaiting major non-cardiac surgery and the launch of one of the largest exercise trials in Europe for patients preparing for cancer treatment.

Professor Glyn Howatson, who leads the Optimising Human Performance research group, was the first to uncover the benefits of drinking Montmorency cherry juice before and after strenuous sporting activity. As well as discovering that the cherry juice significantly enhanced muscle recovery among professional athletes, Professor Howatson went on to discover multiple ways in which this ‘super fruit’ can benefit the wider public, discovering that it can improve vascular function, reduce blood pressure, and improve both the quality and duration of sleep.

The Optimising Human Performance research group has helped to deliver outstanding results for elite athletes, and in particular, the British Cycling team. A long-standing collaboration with the English Institute of Sport (EIS) has established unique training methods that have been adopted by the EIS to provide innovative and safe ways to help to improve performance in Britain’s Olympic cyclists.

“We developed novel strength-training methods for Britain’s cyclists, stepping away from the standardised barbell resistance exercise,” said Professor Howatson. “Our team developed an ‘on bike’ resistance training session that can help improve strength and power but with lower injury risk than traditional strength training with heavy weights.”

The University also shaped the development of new cryotherapy guidelines for the EIS, using cold water immersion to accelerate athletes’ recovery after training and competing. In the lead-up to, and throughout, the 2016 Rio Olympics, these new guidelines were used by athletes across 23 Team GB sports to enhance recovery, contributing to Team GB’s performance success on this global stage and helping them to prepare for further successes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Through research and collaborations with businesses, organisations and healthcare providers, Northumbria is going further and faster on innovations in health - finding solutions to one of the biggest challenges facing our society - how do we help people live longer and better lives?

Find out more about our NU-OMICS sequencing facility and contact the team here.

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