NHS at 70: What has research done for us?

A blog by our President, Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci


As the NHS turns 70 this year there is no better time to celebrate the impact UK research has had on patients.

Seven ways research has improved patient care

UK research has benefitted greatly from having a nationalised health service, and our biomedical and health research depends on academia-NHS collaboration for benefits to reach patients.

Research has made a transformative difference to healthcare and immeasurably improved the lives of patients, and in this blog I wanted to showcase seven examples that demonstrate this impact.

Organ transplants

Organ transplantation, once barely imaginable, is now a routine medical procedure. The UK has contributed to the field significantly, with liver transplantation pioneered by Roy Calne in Cambridge alongside collaborators in the US. My field of research, pioneered by the British immunologist and Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, looking at the way the immune system reacts to the transplanted organ, has contributed greatly by significantly reducing in the number of organs rejected while at the same time reducing the previously debilitating side effects associated with after care.

Antibody therapies

The UK has led on the development of innovative antibody therapies, which now make up a third of all new treatments. George Köhler and César Milstein won the Nobel Prize for finding a way to isolate and reproduce monoclonal antibodies. Their work was followed by pioneering studies from Gregory Winter, also based at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, to humanise antibodies, a breakthrough that opened up the possibility for antibodies to be used as treatments. The impact of this work has been colossal, with antibody therapies now being used to treat diseases such as breast cancer, leukaemia, asthma, arthritis, as well as transplant rejection.

Better cancer treatment

Cancer research is another area where the UK excels and new treatments developed in recent decades have significantly improved the outcomes of patients with cancers such as leukaemia and breast cancer. The UK has some of the leading academic drug discovery centres in the world. The Institute of Cancer Research, London’s partnership with the Royal Marsden hospital, is a robust example of how research and the NHS can be integrated find better ways to diagnose and treat cancer. It was this environment of academia-NHS collaboration that contributed to the discovery of the breast cancer gene BRCA2, and has led to the development of innovative new cancer drugs such as the successful prostate cancer drug Abiraterone. The partnership of academia and the NHS also allows for the practical implementation from laboratory to bedside.

Fertility treatment

British physiologist Sir Robert Edwards won a Nobel Prize in 2010 for his pioneering work developing IVF with Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe. Their work was based on years of research to understand fertility, such as that carried out by the leading developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren whose work paved the way for IVF.

The UK continues to lead the work in pioneering fertility research, it was announced earlier this year that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority had granted Professor Mary Herbert and colleagues at Newcastle University and Newcastle Fertility Centre a licence to offer treatments to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial disease. As the announcement was made she said "Many years of research have led to the development of pronuclear transfer as a treatment to reduce the risk of mothers transmitting disease to their children.”  

Treatment for HIV

In the 1980s HIV was almost always fatal, now there are drugs that can be used in combination that allow HIV to be treated as a long term chronic disease. Clinical trials led by leading UK epidemiologist Professor Janet Darbyshire FMedSci, who went on to establish the Medical Research Council clinical trials unit, have had an impact on treatment for HIV in the UK and globally. 

MRI scanning

Research hasn’t just given us new treatments: it has given us the tools to better diagnose and monitor disease, giving us unprecedented opportunity to more accurately treat disease. Magnetic resonance imaging is a remarkable diagnostic that is now a cornerstone of modern medicine. It was pioneered by Peter Mansfield at Nottingham University, an achievement that saw him win a Nobel prize for his efforts.

Next generation of researchers are making a difference now

It gives me great hope and delight that the Academy of Medical Sciences is providing funding and career support to the next generation of medical scientists. These researchers are working on projects that will make a difference to patients now and in the future. Just a few examples of the grant awardees we fund include Dr Rina Dutta’s work examining language used in social media posts to better understand mental health problems and suicide risk, Dr Sian Henson’s research examining the way that immune cells change during the ageing process in the hope to find new ways to treat disease such as diabetes to dementia, to Dr Estee Torok’s research using genomics to find ways to better diagnose and treat infectious disease.

In conclusion

As the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary, we should also celebrate biomedical and health research that is improving and extending the lives of patients every moment of every day.


This blog is one of two blogs from our President on the NHS. Read the second here -  NHS at 70: Research benefits health

To find out more about supporting the work of the Academy, please see our dedicated support us webpage . 


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