New research collaboration will develop precision cell therapies for blood disorders

The Universities of Birmingham and Oxford are to take part in one of five new NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) research units.

red blood cells

The £20m programme, co-funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and NHSBT - are aimed at providing new technologies, techniques or insights that will benefit donation, transfusion, and transplantation. The NIHR BTRUs are partnerships between universities and NHSBT.

Many of the work strands in the new units could result in new technologies and practices that can then be delivered at scale by NHSBT, helping to save and improve even more lives. Much of the work will be aimed at reducing health disparities and improving access to new treatments.

Researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford are part of the NIHR BTRU in Precision Cellular Therapeutics - also working in collaboration with University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and Aparito Ltd.

Professor Melanie Calvert, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, said: “We’re delighted to be working with colleagues at the University of Oxford, NHSBT, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and Aparito Ltd and our patient partners in this innovative research unit. Our expertise in health data and patient-facing technologies has real potential to improve access to new therapies and also improve outcomes for patients receiving treatment.”

The aim is to develop new kinds of cell therapies for blood disorders and blood cancer, and improved systems for following up patients receiving treatment to better support their care.

Our expertise in health data and patient-facing technologies has real potential to improve access to new therapies and also improve outcomes for patients receiving treatment.

Professor Melanie Calvert, School of Health and Population Sciences

There is a wide range of work in the programme but examples include:

  • Development of new digital technologies to assess changes in patient symptoms and improve care by enhancing interactions between patients and their healthcare team. It is important that patients from all communities benefit from cell therapies. The team will seek to better understand how patients access the newer cell therapies and how they perceive the benefits of treatment.
  • Transplants work in blood cancer patients because some of the donor immune cells attack and eliminate the cancer, but these cells can also attack the donors own cells and cause a complication called graft versus host disease (GvHD). The team will seek to identify and clone the receptors that enable the T cells to target the cancer cells while reducing the toxicity due to GvHD seen in patients. The ultimate aim of this research is develop a novel clinical trial, with NHSBT, via its cell therapy manufacturing infrastructure, expanding these cancer specific T cell receptors for use in patients.
  • There is a shortage of suitable cell donors for minority communities. Cord blood units from babies may be a match but not have enough cells to be successful in adults. The team will seek to expand and gene edit the stem cells in cord blood, so they could be used with increased safely in a wider range of adults. NHSBT will support the translation of this research through to early phase clinical trials, providing process development, manufacturing and quality control expertise. This initiative will drive wider access to cord blood transplant.

The BRTUs are funded by £16m from the NIHR and £4m from NHSBT, with research goals set to meet NHSBT’s requirements, to be delivered between 2022 and 2027.

The products could be manufactured at the latest NHSBT sites including major new centres such as the new cellular therapies laboratories in Barnsley and the forthcoming Clinical Biotechnology Centre in Bristol.

Dr Gail Miflin, Chief Medical Officer for NHSBT, said: “By collaborating with academia, these five new Blood and Transplant Research Units will help us to deliver on our mission to ‘save and improve even more lives’ and drive innovation to inform future clinical practice and improve patient outcomes.

“For example, the supply-demand gap for solid organs continues to grow. We will explore the use of organ perfusion technologies to maintain and enhance the quality of organs, improve organ preservation and increase organ utilisation. This will enable more patients to receive the transplant they need.

“And by building and analysing new data sets to track and demonstrate the impact of our interventions will lead to better understanding and improved outcomes. We already do this well for solid organs, but do not currently understand the outcomes for people who receive blood or stem cells. We will work with partners to build integrated data sets for these patients, focusing on the multi-transfused, especially those with sickle cell disease where a clear health inequity exists.

“To maximise the value and impact from our research, we will accelerate the translation of innovation into practice. The NIHR BTRUs will be an important vehicle for this in the longer term.”

Dr Elin Haf Davies, CEO of Aparito, said: "We are thrilled that Aparito can support another groundbreaking initiative alongside innovative partners that continue to deliver world-class digital health solutions."

Notes for editors

  • For media enquiries please contact Beck Lockwood, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0)781 3343348.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • NHS Blood and Transplant is a joint England and Wales Special Health Authority. We provide the blood donation service for England and the organ donation service for the UK. We also provide donated tissues, stem cells and cord blood. We are an essential part of the NHS, saving and improving lives through public donation.
    • The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:
    • Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;
    • Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services;
    • Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research;
    • Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges;
    • Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;
    • Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.

NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.