Three years ago, the Academy began a quest to develop a new generation of leaders in medical research who could address society’s most complex health challenges.
With our unique position, spanning academia, government, industry and the NHS, we wanted to nurture leaders who can innovate through collaboration. We wanted to enable these individuals to seize the new opportunities arising from discoveries in science, technology and medicine.
In February 2019, we launched FLIER: Future Leaders in Innovation, Enterprise and Research programme. Seventeen emerging leaders began the two-year programme with eighteen more joining in 2020.
None of us predicted the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the intervening months, nor the havoc it would wreak for patients, the health service and society as a whole. However, the training and development given to the FLIER participants meant they were ideally positioned to step up and help.
Bigger, faster, better research
Part of the first FLIER cohort, Dr Charlotte Summers, from the University of Cambridge, has just been awarded £3.5 million from the National Institute for Health Research for a trial with patients recovering from COVID-19. HEAL-COVID will test whether patients leaving hospital could be treated with a statin or an anti-coagulant to reduce their chances of dying or being re-admitted to hospital.
She says: “Our trial team involves industry, the third sector and academic collaborators. There are fifteen co-investigators from different specialties and we aim to recruit from every NHS hospital in the UK. The scale of this project is far more ambitious than I would have attempted before FLIER.”
Trial data will be collected electronically through NHS Digital and from patients responding to questions via Aparito’s study specific app, Atom5™, meaning patients won’t have to make any on-going visits to hospital for the study.
Dr Wicks worked with patients on the design of the trial. For example, he brought together a patient group to advise on how often they wanted to answer questionnaires, with surprising results. “Patients were happy to be asked more frequently than I thought they would,” Dr Summers explains.
“All this helped to get the funding for the study. Grant reviewers said it was a really well-thought through trial that reduced the burden on patients and tried to remove any barriers to patient participation.”
She adds: “I would never have achieved any of this without FLIER, and Elin and Paul.”
Collaborating with confidence
Another FLIER participant responding to the COVID crisis is Dr Victor Neduva, Senior Principal Scientist at MSD. Dr Neduva says that his time on the FLIER programme, particularly the immersion experiences, helped broaden his understanding of the NHS and research environment in the UK, preparing him to form new collaborations.
In May 2020, when Genomics England began a search for partners in a new COVID-19 study, Dr Neduva was well-placed to bring MSD into the consortium. The GEL COVID-19 project will compare genome sequences of people who suffered severe COVID-19 with those from people who suffered milder symptoms. Researchers hope to discover clues about how to prevent or treat severe infections.
Dr Neduva says: “MSD scientists are moving with urgency to advance the development of two investigational therapeutics. Our collaboration with Genomics England is important in this area. It also extends into other disease areas that we’re researching, for example oncology.”
Dr Neduva has also assisted Genomics England with piloting a new cloud-based IT system, advising on what functionality would be needed to support partnerships with industry.
He adds: “I’ve come to the conclusion that FLIER helps me to put things into context. My time on the programme was instrumental in understanding how interconnected the UK healthcare ecosystem is and what role data can play in it.”
Turning research into reality
The FLIER programme is starting to bear fruit beyond COVID-19 too.
Dr Davide Danovi, Head of Cellular Phenotyping at bit.bio and senior lecturer at King's College London, is part of the second FLIER cohort. His work focuses on using microscopy and image analysis tools to study the behaviour of cells.
With his group at King’s, Dr Danovi is working on an idea for tackling glioblastoma, a form of cancer which can spread through the brain via nerves. The research aims to target this spread by tricking tumour cells into moving along a synthetic material that mimics nerves.
Through FLIER, Dr Danovi met with cohort one participant Professor Peter Bannister, Executive Chair of the Institution of Engineering and Technology Healthcare Sector and executive MBA candidate.
Leveraging his experience in healthcare technology product and business development, Professor Bannister is supporting Dr Danovi with creating a business plan to develop the idea and scope out potential applications. They are capitalising on their combined professional contacts and the Academy’s network, for example speaking to brain surgeons and patent attorneys.
Dr Danovi says: “It’s refreshing to have Peter driving translation. There’s a wonderful complementarity of vision and skills, which I believe will make this happen.”
“These future leaders are already achieving all we hoped and more,” says our President, Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci. “They’re seeding collaborations. They’re grappling with the most challenging problems facing health and society today. They’re inspiring and encouraging others, and each other.”
She adds: “This is only the beginning. As the FLIERs continue their work, and they are joined by future cohorts, I firmly believe they will together accomplish great things and bring forward improvements across the board in medical research and health.”
The Academy is delivering FLIER in partnership with Cirrus, bespoke leadership, talent and engagement specialists.
The FLIER programme is generously supported by the Dennis and Mireille Gillings Foundation and the Government Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ‘Investment in Research Talent’ fund.