Unlocking innovation is key to NHS research success

Doctors need to be given freedom to do research alongside clinical work to aid medical advances, according to a pioneering scientist.

Dr Kunnathur Rajan led tests in the 1970s into the effects of asbestos on the lungs and smoking-related cancers. Describing himself as an eternal student, Dr Rajan believes that all consultants should carry out research alongside clinical work.

Despite time and financial pressures, Dr Rajan said allowing consultants to conduct studies would save the NHS money in the long-run because of any subsequent breakthroughs.

Indian-born Dr Rajan studied at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, and worked at hospitals around England before deciding to broaden his research by doing a PhD at Cambridge University. While there, he worked with Dame Honor Fell, who is credited with developing the organ culture method, growing living cells in the laboratory so they can be studied.

In 1970, Dr Rajan joined the pneumoconiosis research unit at Cardiff’s Llandough Hospital, where he led research looking into the effects of asbestos on the lungs. To illustrate this, he developed the organ culture method for adult pleura (lining of the lung) and grew a tumour. The work was seen as a breakthrough and the results published in the Nature journal in 1972.

Other research at the unit included looking at the effects of smoking on human lungs and maintaining pancreas and human brain tissue using the organ culture method. When this work ended, Dr Rajan took a position as a consultant physician in rheumatology in Rhondda Cynon Taff.

After a visit to the USA for a conference, he was convinced diagnostic equipment to check bone density could help rising cases of people suffering from osteoporosis. With no funding available in the NHS, he approached local mayor Edie May Evans, who helped raise £60,000. The service is running at Pontypridd’s Dewi Sant Hospital.

“I scanned 16,000 patients on the NHS with it and published nearly 100 papers – I found that if you can catch the signs of osteoporosis early and treat it, you can save a lot of money. Early intervention can prevent fracture – which also means the quality of life for the patient is better because if they break their hip and have a replacement, it is not the same as having their own.” explained Dr Rajan.

A bone density machine is still being used in Pontypridd after Dr Rajan played a key role and having it installed.

Dr Jon Bisson, director of Health and Care Research Wales, has stated that he wants to ensure everyone has a chance to carry out research. He said: “I want to see pockets of excellence that exist grow throughout Wales.”

One of these is emerging through a link between Swansea University Medical School, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board and Hywel Dda University Health Board, which together create ARCH: A Regional Collaboration for Health, with the aim to develop more opportunities for healthcare research work.

Prof Keith Lloyd, Dean of the Swansea University Medical School believes ARCH has the potential to unlock the innovation in the NHS.

Read more in the BBC article here