Global Health Challenges – Our Real World Impact

We are improving the health of people across the world through new discoveries, treatments and patient pathways and working in partnership to build a transformative health ecosystem in our region.

New infection control technology that rapidly kills bacteria including strains of MRSA  

It is predicted that by 2050, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could cost the global economy $100 trillion, with drug-resistant infections killing more than 10 million people a year worldwide – a ten-fold increase on current numbers. At the University of Birmingham, our researchers are creating innovative and cutting-edge solutions to stop the spread of bacterial, viral and insect-borne diseases.

Our leading chemists and microbiologists have developed and patented an antimicrobial coating for surfaces called NitroPep, which is clinically proven to kill bacteria such as MRSA and E.coli. Independently-assessed laboratory data has also shown that the NitroPep antimicrobial surface coating rapidly inactivates SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

An explainer video on how the NitroPep antimicrobial coating works.

Saving the lives of mothers in low-resource countries by reducing bleeding following childbirth

Postpartum haemorrhage – excessive bleeding after childbirth – claims the lives of around 100,000 mothers and 80,000 babies each year in low- and middle-income countries. The lack of an effective uterus-contracting (uterotonic) medication is a major contributor to high maternal mortality in these countries. A heat-stable alternative would be more effective and potentially save many lives.

By using network meta-analysis, our maternal health experts joined forces with statisticians to trial the use of a variety of uterotonic drugs to identify the most effective one for preventing postpartum haemorrhage with the fewest adverse effects.

A woman holds her pregnancy bump.
A Black mother carries her baby on her back.

The trial established that three uterotonic drugs were more effective for the prevention of postpartum haemorrhage than oxytocin, which was the standard therapy advised by the World Health Organization. Of these three drugs, the research found that using carbetocin as the drug of choice worldwide could save more than 4 million women from suffering postpartum haemorrhage each year and reduce related complications – including death – that are a particularly significant risk for women in low- and middle-income countries.

Professor Arri Coomarasamy

Professor Arri Coomarasamy

Professor of Gynaecology and Reproductive Medicine

“We were thrilled to be part of trialling a medicine which has been found to have the potential to save the lives of thousands of women giving birth. Refrigeration is readily available in the UK but many countries don’t have facilities to keep medicines cold, reducing their effectiveness. This trial showed that heat-stable carbetocin is as effective in preventing childbirth related haemorrhage as the current standard of care stored under optimal conditions, and has the added benefit of not requiring refrigeration.”

Using suboptimal livers to save lives in transplant surgery

Liver disease is a major health problem worldwide. Incidence has increased five-fold over the last 40 years. It is now the fifth commonest cause of premature death globally, accounting for 8,500 deaths annually in the UK. Liver transplantation is a highly effective treatment for patients with end-stage liver disease and 5-year survival rates are 60–70%. However, access to life-saving transplantation is limited by a shortage of donor organs.

The VITTAL study was a collaboration of experts rethinking organ viability aiming to reduce the number of discarded livers while reducing the risks of transplanting them.

University of Birmingham researchers established a research programme aimed at reducing the number of donor livers discarded by maximising the functional quality of sub-optimal organs. They developed methods to improve the preservation and recovery of function of sub-optimal donated livers and established a set of ‘viability criteria’ that donated livers must meet to be transplanted. 

Among the key findings, over 70% of sub-optimal donor livers that had been turned down for transplantation on standard criteria could safely be transplanted after carrying out normothermic machine liver perfusion – assessing whether donor livers could be preserved using machines that perfuse (supply) blood at body temperatures.

Dr Hynek Mergental

Dr Hynek Mergental

Honorary Senior Lecturer

“While liver transplantation is one of the most advanced surgical procedures, up to now, there has been no objective mean to assess suitability of donor livers for transplantation. The VITTAL trial validated our pre-clinical research and pilot clinical observations and these viability criteria can now guide transplant teams worldwide to provide access to the life-saving transplantation to more patients in need.”

Real-time pathogen genome sequencing to inform outbreak response

Our team of researchers developed rapid whole genomic sequencing methods, including portable sequencing tools, laboratory methods and open-source bioinformatic software. This has helped health workers throughout the world to quickly understand the spread of viruses and break the chain of infection.

The new system was instrumental in the response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014 to 2016 and the Zika virus epidemic in the Americas during 2016. The approach has been applied to other diseases and notably the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The benefits led to changes in policy and practice within the World Health Organization to improve rapid sharing of sequence data which has proved critical in the identification of SARS-CoV-2 variants and influenced containment policies in the UK.

Scientists using sequencing equipment in the field.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus under a microscope.

Global surgical studies inform hospital care during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus swept across the planet creating a global pandemic, healthcare systems were unprepared for its scale. Ongoing and scheduled patient care was disrupted. Guidance for surgical services was especially important to determine, as surgical patients were particularly susceptible to complications following COVID-19 infection while delay to surgical intervention could have devastating consequences for health and quality of life and cause unnecessary deaths. 

Surgeons in an operating room.
A face mask with a map of the world placed on top.

The NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Global Surgery, led by University of Birmingham researchers, established the COVIDSurg collaborative in January 2020 to bring together surgeons and researchers from across the globe to understand how to protect surgical patients from infection with COVID-19 and keep surgery as safe as possible.

Mr Aneel Bhangu

Mr Aneel Bhangu

Senior Lecturer and Consultant Surgeon

“Being awarded the Guinness World Records title for the world’s largest scientific collaboration highlights the scale of our global partnership, which aims to contribute to our understanding of COVID-19 and help to save as many lives as possible around the world. It marks the commitment and hard work of thousands of medical colleagues around the world to understand the changes that are needed in how surgery must be delivered if we are to beat the virus and reduce its impact on surgical patients.”