NHS set to benefit from UK-led technologies

Video games, pioneering gene therapies and new medical devices are set to transform treatments on the NHS, with support from the Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust.

The experimental technologies are being developed through the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, which was set up in 2009 to stimulate the delivery of products and interventions with potential clinical application in the NHS within a five-year time frame.

Professor Janet Eyre at Newcastle University has been supported by the Fund to develop a system for therapists to monitor patients' arm rehabilitation and recovery after stroke using video games that can be played at home. The patient's movements are measured as part of the game, and information on how well they are performing can be relayed to a therapist in the clinic via the internet. The aim is to enable therapists to continually track their patients' recovery and adjust therapy programmes accordingly.

Professor Eyre explains: "We hope that enabling therapists to monitor their patients' progress remotely will improve compliance with home-based therapy programmes, speed up recoveries and free up valuable clinic time. Ultimately, therapists will be able to supervise more patients and patients should regain greater independence."

Following collection and validation of the required data from patients playing the games, the team anticipate that the full package will be available to therapists within two years.

The Fund has also supported the world's first clinical trial for a hereditary type of blindness called choroideraemia, using a gene therapy approach. Researchers are still analysing the data, but early results are very promising, with no reported adverse effects.

Professor Robert MacLaren from the University of Oxford is leading the clinical trial at the Oxford Eye Hospital, together with Professor Miguel Seabra from Imperial College London. Professor MacLaren, who is also consultant ophthalmologist at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "It is exciting to think that if the results of the trial prove successful, this UK-led research could mean that a single sight-saving injection could preserve sight in the many thousands of people affected by this disease worldwide."

A team of researchers at Imperial College London has been supported by the Fund to develop a totally automated blood pressure monitoring system that can be used at home to improve the care of patients with heart failure or high blood pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs.

They have designed an implantable device that will be placed inside one of the patient's lung arteries to continually monitor blood pressure and transmit the information to an NHS computer using mobile phone technology. This will enable doctors and healthcare professionals to monitor the patient's status remotely and modify treatment accordingly.

Professor Chris McLeod, who is leading the project, explained: "At the moment, the only way to monitor pressure in the blood vessels of the lung is by catheter, which requires hospitalisation, can only be done infrequently and carries some risk of infection. With the support of the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, we hope to provide a practical solution that will improve patient wellbeing and care at home and, furthermore, will reduce hospitalisation."

The team is currently investigating the feasibility of manufacturing reproducible devices and readers in an approved method. These devices will be tested extensively in animal models and, if successful, a proposal will be made to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency for a limited safety and efficacy series of tests in patients by the early part of 2014.

Speaking at a press conference in London today, the Director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Mark Walport, said: "It is an exciting time for many areas of medical research. Advances in genomics, engineering, imaging and informatics are ripe for introduction into the NHS to improve health and create new economic opportunities. The Health Innovation Challenge Fund is enabling us to capitalise on this wealth of scientific discovery and invention and to transform it into patient-focused innovations that will ultimately improve public health.

"The close alignment with the Department of Health brings a unique insight to the challenges faced by the NHS and acts as a stimulus to academia and industry to step up and deliver scalable solutions to prevent, diagnose and treat ill health."

Professor Dame Sally C Davies, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Health, said:"I am delighted by the progress of research projects funded by this programme. The Health Innovation Challenge Fund helps to speed up the development and adoption of new treatments for NHS patients. It plays an important role by targeting areas of unmet - or poorly met - health needs, in areas where there have been few developments or slow improvements."

The Health Innovation Challenge Fund is open to applications from UK small businesses, university groups and NHS trusts with innovative ideas to improve patient experience.