National Horizons Centre, Darlington, labs NHC

Teesside University’s £22m National Horizons Centre opened in September 2019 with two objectives, to drive research into bioprocessing, digital and health, and to plug the yawning skills gap. Research, teaching and enterprise are its watchwords.

The work of the National Horizons Centre is a prime example of how bioinformatics and data science are being harnessed to manage patient care today.

The practice of modelling diseases with a view to producing the means of early diagnoses has come into its own during Covid-19, when research institutes such as the NHC have certainly stepped up to the plate.

Its Head of Bioscience Research, Prof. Vikki Rand, said: “We are part of a study working with clinicians from local NHS Trusts to understand the clinical course of COVID-19 cases in the region and in other countries.

“This study uses clinical data collected from COVID-19 patients, which we are analysing to identify risk factors associated with patient survival that could guide future treatment strategies.”

In parallel, the team is investigating underlying aspects such as respiratory disease and the cytokine storm that can prove a disastrous turning point not just in Covid-19, but other diseases too.

The multidisciplinary team within works in partnership with industry, academia and the NHS, translating research into effective strategy in four key areas:

  • Health and Disease
  • Bioinformatics and Data Science
  • Biotechnology and Analytics
  • Sustainable Planet

Prof. Rand said: “The four themes encapsulate our fundamental and applied research, which is aimed at exploring the characterisation, understanding and modelling of complex interactions within biological systems.

“This includes the study of cancer and other diseases, food technology, development of medical diagnostic devices, ecology and environment, forensic archaeology and biotechnology enhancement.”

The results of its research are published in prestigious journals and regularly showcased at national and international conferences.

In terms of ‘Health and Disease’, the team’s overarching aim is to help improve the lives of people both in the UK and beyond, ironing out as many North/South and rich country/poor country disparities in healthcare provision as it can.

She said: “Working in partnership with healthcare providers, we identify the current medical needs across a range of diseases, using cutting-edge genomics, next-generation sequencing and proteomic approaches, we aim to improve the lives of people in the UK and worldwide. 

Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and asthma are among the range of diseases on the NHC’s radar. Besides reinforcing the pathway to early diagnosis, it is determined to help fine-tune risk stratification and make personalised medicine a reality.

The continuing development of high-throughput technologies across healthcare, forensics, biotechnology and environmental research puts data at the heart of its work.

As such, the ‘Bioinformatics and Data Science’ heading embraces the disciplines of genomics, machine-learning, proteomics, survival analysis and forensic and environmental imaging.

“Innovative bioinformatics approaches are essential to enable the analysis of large amounts of data to reveal new insights,” she said, “so an important element of our work is designing new tools that enable an enhanced level of management and interpretation.”

Equally, the team is intent on identifying the biomarkers of pathogens and disease whilst developing the related diagnostic tools, and validating cutting-edge 3D imaging technologies that could be used in the analysis, visualisation and courtroom presentation of forensic evidence.

Meanwhile, the research that comes under the heading of ‘Biotechnology and Analytics’ tackles drug manufacturing, bioprocessing, pharmaceuticals proteomics and mass spectrometry, including the study of metabolism and drug interaction and protein structure and function.

Sustainable planet’ is, by definition, the biggest subject heading of all. Embracing pressing global environmental issues, it draw engineers, geographers, environmental geochemists, ecologists, biologists, food scientists and forensic scientists into the orbit of the National Horizons Centre.

Prof. Rand said: “Here, the common goal is to deliver state-of-the-art research drawing on our expertise across the four themes. The multi-disciplinary approach at the NHC will enable us to translate our research into real-world impact.”