The University of Birmingham proudly hosts the Birmingham Centre for Clinical Trials which includes two clinical trials units, the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit and the Birmingham Clinical Trials Unit (BCTU). The latter is currently celebrating the 21st year since its foundation.
Across the world there are dozens of metaphors, proverbs and quotes outlining the importance of teamwork. A particularly memorable one came from the author and activist Helen Keller: ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much’. This is particularly true of the medical industry.
The treatment that you take, whether it is a medicine, device, therapy or surgery, has been years in the making. The healthcare professional administering it to you is the last in a long chain that starts with a clinical problem and an initial idea for a treatment. A pivotal part of this chain is a randomised controlled trial, with support from a clinical trials unit.
Established in 1997 by Professor Richard Gray, the BCTU’s current Director is Professor Peter Brocklehurst, who joined the University from University College London to take on this role in July 2016.
In order to understand the pivotal work that the BCTU undertakes it is important to understand what a clinical trial is and what its purpose is.
"If we develop a new drug or a new way of doing something, for example a new surgical technique, we want to be certain that this is better than what we currently do," reveals Professor Brocklehurst. "In order to do this we have to carry out a clinical trial. This allows us to compare the new treatment with the existing one to see whether it is better or not."
Did you know
Find out more about clinical trials at Birmingham
- The BCTU’s first trial, AD2000, began in 1998. It focused on 566 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease
- The largest study the BCTU has participated in so far is PULSE-OX. Over 20,000 babies from the West Midlands took part and the results show that routine use of pulse oximetry screening of newborns is beneficial
- The BCTU’s longest running trial is PD MED, which opened to recruitment in 1999 and is still running!
- The FOXTROT trial was the BCTU’s first international trial. It opened to recruitment in 2008
- The BCTU now employs over 100 staff, co-ordinating over 50 studies in primary and secondary care
- Over 1,200 people have been trained in research methods by the BCTU
- The BCTU has worked on grant applications worth over £89 million in total awards
- The BCTU has worked on several studies which have changed clinical practice, including PD MED, and PULSE-OX
"If we develop a new drug or a new way of doing something, for example a new surgical technique, we want to be certain that this is better than what we currently do..."
Professor Peter Brocklehurst
Director, Birmingham Clinical Trials Unit
Clinical trials are divided into different stages, called phases. As Cancer Research UK explains, the earliest phase trials may look at whether a drug is safe or the side effects it causes. A later phase trial aims to test whether a new treatment is better than existing treatments.
The BCTU’s main focus is on large scale late phase randomised controlled trials.
"You can’t just give a new drug to a group of people and say, 'They’ve done better than the people on the previous treatment' because there may be differences between those two groups of people," explains Professor Brocklehurst.
"In a trial we randomise participants to receive the new therapy or the existing therapy, which is a fair way of testing the effect of the new treatment. It’s a bit like the flip of a coin but in a much more sophisticated manner using specific software. We do this so people don’t know whether they are going to get the new therapy or not.
"That way we can ensure that the two groups of people, those who get the new treatment and those who don’t, are as similar as they possibly can be. For example, there is no opportunity that one group is older or more likely to be female or have more severe disease than the other group because they’ve been allocated at random."
With 21 successful years and hundreds of completed trials under its belt, the BCTU is growing from strength to strength, providing the scientific, technical and computing expertise needed to support clinical trial research from conception through to completion.
Here's to the next 21 years!
Neil Winkles, Senior Analyst Programmer
Neil joined the BCTU after studying at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate. As a member of the Programming team, Neil is responsible for developing and maintaining database and web applications that are used to collect data for the clinical trials that the BCTU runs.
Natalie Ives, Senior Statistician
Natalie is the Statistics Team Leader in the BCTU. Natalie leads a team of 15 statisticians and has been with the BCTU for 18 years in January 2019, joining the BCTU after completing a Master's in statistics at Sheffield University and then working in HIV research in London for 3 years. Natalie wanted to go into medical statistics, working in academia rather than the pharmaceutical industry and knew that the role at the BCTU would be perfect for her.
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