Imperial College London

Researchers to combat disease pandemics and TB in new Health Protection Unit


Passengers wearing facemasks at Singapore international airport

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A major new research unit being launched today aims to prevent and pre-empt disease pandemics and fight dangerous respiratory infections.

The NIHR Health Protection Research Unit (HPRU) in Respiratory Infection is a partnership between Imperial College London and Public Health England (PHE), with around £4m funding from the National Institute for Health Research. It will also involve clinicians and scientists from NHS hospital and primary care trusts across the country and the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford.

In the event of a new or resurgent infectious respiratory threat, the Unit is tasked to support PHE in its response and development of new tools to combat the spread of infection and protect the public.

World-leading researchers at the Unit are planning to develop better ways of identifying and monitoring potential pandemics of influenza and other respiratory infections, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). They are working on new methods to quickly recognise people with severe disease, figure out which groups are most vulnerable to infection and help public health officials make the best decisions in the event of an emerging outbreak.

The scientists will also evaluate aspects of the new nasal spray influenza vaccine being offered to all children nationally over the next few years starting this autumn. 

The Unit will determine how best to turn the tide on tuberculosis (TB) in the UK. Rates of TB have been rising for 20 years, such that London now has higher levels of the disease than any capital city in western Europe. PHE has pledged to reduce TB infections in London by 50 per cent over five years, and researchers at the Unit will work closely with PHE to determine how to achieve this. They are exploring more effective ways of screening new entrants to the UK for latent TB, so that they can be given treatment to prevent development of the contagious active form of the disease.

Professor Ajit Lalvani, the Director of the new NIHR HPRU in Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London, said: "We are delighted to be working so closely with Public Health England to bring our world-leading scientific and medical expertise to the frontline defence of the nation's health. Many of our researchers were involved in the response to the 2009 swine flu pandemic, and have subsequently been looking at the lessons we can learn from this in terms of tackling future pandemics. Building on this real-time experience, we stand ready to mobilise our staff and technological resources rapidly in the event of a public health emergency."

Professor Maria Zambon, Director of Reference Microbiology Services at Public Health England (PHE) said: "This partnership brings together research from academia and Public Health England to aid our response to new infections, and ensure world class health protection research in England. We are grateful to National Institute for Health Research for supporting this innovative Unit and we look forward to working in partnership with Imperial College London."

See the press release of this article


Laura Gallagher

Laura Gallagher
Communications Division

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Influenza, Infectious-diseases, Lung-disease, Tuberculosis, Viruses
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