In Spring 2020, medical research teams across the world had a problem. COVID-19 was infecting hundreds of thousands of people a week – and killing tens of thousands – but the traditional approach to developing treatments and vaccines would take years, not months to provide weapons to fight it.
For example, two clinical trials of PCSK9 inhibitors, which lower cholesterol and reduce the chances of heart attacks cost more than 1 billion each. On average, it takes 12 years to develop a new medicine.
Researchers needed to see results fast and at scale. The best way to do this was to tap into the existing wealth of data that the health service already held, as well as new data flowing from COVID-19 patients.
At NHS Digital, the data custodian for the health and care system in England, we hold a wide range of coded and analysable data that we can make available to researchers, scientists and public health officials for the benefit of health and care.
The RECOVERY trial is signposted at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge. Photo credit: Cambridge University Hospitals.
At the end of 2019, NHS Digital and our partners IBM, Microsoft and the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute were awarded funding to develop NHS DigiTrials, the Health Data Research Hub for Clinical Trials.
It is developing a range of data services designed to meet the needs of clinical trialists, using the wealth of routinely collected data held by NHS Digital. It supports clinical trials at key points where patient data can make a real difference – supporting feasibility and trial planning and tracking what happens to participants' health over time.
This approach has the potential to deliver a range of benefits: widening the opportunities for patients to take part in clinical trials and allowing research teams to follow up those individuals whose contact details have changed (for example, due to moving house). We can still follow their health outcomes unless they have moved out of England.
This all reduces the cost and complexity of developing new treatments and so cuts the cost of medicines and enables more promising treatments to be taken through trials.
For patients and clinicians, it also has the added benefit of improving the effectiveness and safety of new treatments as well as making them available more quickly.