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10th March 2021
Blog: Summary of the Tackling Global Health challenges through interdisciplinary Knowledge Exchange & Innovation Conference by Dr Ray Kent

Well, wasn’t it fabulous? There – that’s my summary! Okay, I’m teasing. I’d better give you a bit more than that, or you’ll feel short-changed.

We started the week with an overview of The Bloomsbury SET and our conference themes. This was presented by the talented Emma Tomlinson, Head of Research Development at RVC and Chair of The Bloomsbury SET Steering Group. Emma’s introduction was followed by two talks, the first from Jeremy Salt (Chief Scientific Officer, GALVmed) and the second from Joyce Tait (Co-Director, Innogen Institute, University of Edinburgh). They focused on some of the principal challenges associated with bringing animal health products to market, including reducing the financial risks and hurdles, and the regulatory aspects of product development. The scale of these challenges is vast, and so the resources being brough to bear on them need to be equally huge. But patience and persistence do pay off, as exemplified by the story of how GALVmed has gone from strength to strength since its founding in 2008.

Our second session was chaired by the fabulous Alex Anderson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and aimed specifically at Early Career Researchers. The theme was again around research translation, starting in the social sciences with a talk by Chris Taylor on SPARK, Academic Director of Cardiff University’s new Social Science Research Park (SPARK is a bit like Jurassic Park, but without the tropical island setting and with many fewer dinosaurs). We then moved onto the Life Sciences and a lively presentation by Hugo Villanueva from Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, describing the work they are doing there to support cell and gene therapy companies. Both talks were excellent, and the ensuing panel discussion contained some great hints and tips for researchers interested in taking forward their concepts to market, including the importance of finding allies and mentors, who in turn can introduce you to investors.

On Wednesday, the session was chaired by the awesome Aygen Kurt-Dickson of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the topic being research funding – one of the most important matters in our trade! There were three excellent talks, the first from Helen Lambert (University of Bristol and UKRI Challenge Lead for Global Health) who gave us the mind-blowing statistic of £5.9 bn-worth of grants awarded since 2015 by UKRI and its predecessors, in the area of infectious disease and AMR. Helen’s talk was followed by a presentation from Jo Frost (Innovate UK) on Horizon Europe, the EU’s new flagship research framework programme; and the day was rounded off by Ruth Neale with an interesting talk about the Longitude Prize, first awarded in the 18th century to watch-maker John Harrison, and now reinvented as an £8-million funding pot being offered by NESTA – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – in the area of antimicrobial resistance. Once again, a lively discussion followed on from the talks.

Which brings us to Thursday, when we ran two separate sessions. In the morning, with the incredible Caroline Broad (RVC’s Entrepreneur in Residence) in the chair, there were six lightning talks based on projects funded by The Bloomsbury SET. These ranged far and wide, starting off with the economics of tackling infectious disease and AMR; moving on consider the use of Artificial Intelligence techniques to combat AMR; then to antihelminthics – drugs to expel parasitic worms and other internal parasites; and so on to antifungal nanoparticles; and finally to two talks on preventing disease and diagnosing disease in cattle.

During the afternoon session, we moved on to consider innovation in the field of combatting emerging infectious disease. In the chair this time was Ying Chen of SOAS University of London, who is a recent and very welcome addition to The Bloomsbury SET Steering Group. The first talk came from Martin Smith, Head of Manufacturing Science and Technology at the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC). Martin described how the Centre is now established at Harwell, Oxfordshire, and will have the capability of producing 70 million vaccine doses in 4-6 months by the end of 2021. Our next speaker was Sarah Cordery of the Global AMR Innovation Fund (GAMRIF), who gave us another eye-watering figure: that it typically costs $1.7 bn to bring a novel antibiotic to market. The final talk of the day was by Paul Davis, Chief Scientific Officer of Mologic, who (thanks to Ying) I now know to be the inventor of the Clearblue pregnancy test – but who was actually here to give a fascinating presentation on a novel, low-cost, high-sensitivity, lateral-flow testing platform, which can be deployed to support early detection of tropical diseases.

Phew! Our roller-coaster ride through the Conference takes us to Friday, the final day, when we watched a presentation from Janet Hemingway, Professor of Vector Biology and Chair in Insect Molecular Biology at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who informed us about the work of iiCON, the Infection Innovation Consortium based in North West England. This initiative is a very exciting one, bringing universities and industry together around five virtual ‘platforms’ for tackling human infections and combatting antimicrobial resistance. Our second speaker was Claire Heffernan, Professor of International Development at RVC, and Director of the London International Development Centre. Her talk considered interdisciplinary approaches to three inter-linked Grand Challenges, of antimicrobial resistance, climate change and emerging infectious diseases. Claire illustrated this with a presentation on the UKRI GCRF Action Against Stunting Hub, which takes a holistic view of how to ameliorate or reverse child stunting in low- and middle-income countries. We ended this final session with a Q&A time, chaired by Ray Kent (RVC), with great contributions from the audience that brought some fascinating replies from our panellists.

All in all, it was a really fascinating and varied week, providing plenty of insights and provoking lots of discussion around how UK scientists are approaching the huge challenges of infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance, ‘the silent pandemic’. We look forward to the second Bloomsbury SET conference, to be held in the early summer of 2021, when we will be looking at the role of Knowledge Exchange professionals in ‘connecting capability’, that is brokering translational research in the Life Sciences, and at the interface between Life Sciences, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Image: Screenshot of final session with Dr Ray Kent (RVC), Professor Janet Hemingway (LSMT) and Professor Claire Heffernan (LIDC).