Research Round-up – April 2019

Welcome to the latest instalment of our new monthly feature series throwing the spotlight on our research success stories.

Leeds is part of an N8 delegation travelling to Ghana to identify future partnerships and research proposals to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people

The strength of our research is in making a real and telling difference to the world around us, by working across traditional boundaries to find innovative solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing society today.

Here we highlight some of latest projects being pioneered by the expertise and efforts of the highly talented research community at Leeds.

From grant awards to examples of outstanding interdisciplinary work and best practice, we’re keen to showcase your research achievements. See the foot of this article for details of how you can get involved.

Featured in this month’s round-up:

Tackling the world’s biggest problems

Leeds has extended its international impact, supporting more than 70 Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) research projects across 30 different countries.

Maintaining its mission to be at the forefront of delivering the Government’s key strategy for improving the lives of the world’s poorest people, Leeds has now received more than £45 million from the GCRF during the past five years.

Since the programme started, Leeds has built links with academics in the developing world, investigating the big issues facing the planet, such as climate change and resilience; pollution and environmental degradation; and clean water, disease and improved health.

This month, a delegation from the N8 – a partnership between eight research universities in the north of England, including Leeds – is travelling to Ghana in West Africa to try and extend that work, sharing expertise and building on complementary research strengths.

The delegates, led by Professor Stuart Taberner, Dean for Interdisciplinary Research at Leeds, will be meeting with representatives from the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) to identify future partnerships and research proposals on the intractable problems facing the world.

If successful collaborations can be identified, the teams involved would be able to apply for financial support from the GCRF. Up to six projects could be awarded as much as £2 million each. The fund is delivered, in part, by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Professor Taberner said: “I am asking researchers to think big and to be ambitious with their ideas.

“The gritty, intractable problems facing the world won’t be solved easily, and academics have to come together to share ideas and build on each other’s strengths, and that is the aim of the meeting in Ghana.”

Read the full story.

New research is finding ways in which technology can enhance lives in the future

Changing the relationship between disability and technology

A major new research project is harnessing a diverse range of disciplines to examine how technologists can learn from people with disabilities – and support them in the future.

Led by Leeds, Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures will for the first time bring together expertise in arts and humanities, design, engineering and robotics to increase understanding of how disability is currently represented, and ways in which technology can enhance lives in the future.

Funded with a flagship Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award in Humanities and Social Sciences, the £1.5m five-year project will begin in January 2020. A variety of disability groups across the UK will be closely involved in shaping the project, which includes researchers from the universities of Sheffield, Dundee and Exeter, as well as international partners in the US, Japan and Sweden.

Principal Investigator, Professor Stuart Murray, who is Director of Leeds’ Centre for Medical Humanities, said: “From care and companionship robots to sophisticated assistive speech technology systems, well-designed technology that fully takes account of users’ needs can be a great force for positive change.

“This is a unique project, bringing together researchers across the world from very different backgrounds. Our aim is to better understand how disability and technology interact and how that interaction could develop in the future, with an ever-increasing rate of technological change.”

Professor Alejandro Frangi, Diamond Jubilee Chair in Computational Medicine

Using virtual populations to create safer medical devices

The current innovation process for medical technologies risks stifling the development of new devices, a leading researcher has argued.

Professor Alejandro Frangi, Diamond Jubilee Chair in Computational Medicine at Leeds, says the present system is geared towards small, incremental changes to existing technology or the development of new technologies that work for ‘most’ people but are ineffective or even harmful for others.

By the time side effects emerge, often late in the development lifecycle, millions of pounds may already have been spent.

Professor Frangi said: “It is a huge waste of money, with product development teams having to go back to the drawing board or even scrap a project.”

He says the average cost of getting pre-market approval for a device is about £74m, so the cost of stopping or revising a project is huge.

Professor Frangi has been awarded almost £2.7m by the Royal Academy of Engineering, as part of a Chair in Emerging Technologies Award, to investigate an alternative and complementary method of discovering, developing and testing new medical devices.

He is using techniques being developed in the emerging discipline of computational medicine.

Professor Frangi said: “Computational medicine can bring about a complete shift in the way devices are conceived, developed and, ultimately, tested for the market.

“We are developing an approach called ‘in-silico’ trials, where computer analysis is used to engineer medical devices from their conception, to ensure the optimum clinical outcomes are achieved by designing for various patient groups, and with minimal harm to animals and humans compared with the current status quo.

“These in-silico trials are based on populations of virtual patients that will represent the natural variation in people’s anatomical, physiological and biological make-up found in real-life populations.

“Computer models will be looking at ways, and under what circumstances, a device could fail, cause harm or be ineffective for some groups – and all of this will be happening long before testing with real patients.”

The grant to Professor Frangi and his team will run for the next 10 years, by which time he hopes it will have revolutionised the testing of medical devices.

Read the full story.

New trials could offer fresh hope for those suffering from knee osteoarthritis

Research funding for treatment of knee osteoarthritis

Thousands of people suffering from knee osteoarthritis could be given new hope of living pain-free lives thanks to pioneering research.

Knee osteoarthritis is a common disabling condition, which causes pain that limits day-to-day activities. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage in the joint gradually wears away – it becomes frayed and rough, and the protective space between the bones decreases. This can result in bone rubbing on bone, producing painful bone spurs. It is increasing since people are living longer with increasing obesity but with a desire to stay active.

Knee arthritis can make it hard to do many everyday activities, such as walking, climbing stairs or other forms of exercise.

When initial medical management fails, patients may be offered a knee replacement. More than 100,000 replacements were carried out in the UK during 2015-16, at a cost to the NHS in excess of £1 billion. Although most people experience substantial improvement in their symptoms, one in five continues to suffer from pain. And with time, artificial joints fail, particularly in the young and/or active.

Knee replacement is therefore not the preferred treatment option for people who are likely to outlive their artificial knee. Knee joint distraction is an alternative treatment, which retains the knee joint and allows healthy cartilage to heal, keeping the joint pain free.

Now, Hemant Pandit, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery (Leeds Institute of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Medicine), and Deborah Stocken, Professor of Clinical Trials Research (Leeds Institute of Clinical Trials Research), together with other co-applicants, have been awarded £2m from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment Programme to conduct a trial for the treatment of the condition.

An analysis of the cost-effectiveness will be performed to see if knee joint distraction could represent value for money for the NHS where the number of patients with knee osteoarthritis is likely to increase substantially.

Professor Anne-Maree Kennan, who has received an OBE in The Queen's Birthday Honours June 2018Professor Anne-Maree Keenan, who has been appointed strategic lead for the Biomedical Research Centre bid

Bid to develop Biomedical Research Centre

A partnership with Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust hopes to bid for a grant to develop a Biomedical Research Centre for musculoskeletal conditions.

One of our research strengths is in the area of musculoskeletal conditions – considering how the musculature and skeleton work together – and we would like to develop a larger and more diverse centre of excellence within the School of Medicine.

The bid would be to increase our funding from about £6m currently to £10m.

This is also part of a new School Vision to examine ways we can help patients with more robust and impactful treatments.

As part of these plans, which will take up to two years to come to fruition, Professor Anne-Maree Keenan has been appointed as strategic lead for this area.

Professor Mark Kearney, Dean of the School of Medicine, said: “Professor Keenan is Chair of Applied Health Research and works across the Schools of Medicine and Healthcare. She has been heavily involved in musculoskeletal biomedical research within the School and has superb skills that will be hugely beneficial to take this work forward.”

Dr Andrew Smith is leading a team researching how to spot diabetes early

Heart Research UK grant to spot diabetes early

Leeds-based national charity Heart Research UK has awarded a grant of £114,992 for research into the early diagnosis of diabetes.

Diabetes, which affects 3.7 million people in the UK, causes severe damage to blood vessels throughout the body with serious consequences, so ways of detecting changes in blood vessels would mean that it could be spotted at an earlier stage.

In diabetes, cells in blood vessels produce proteins that are released into the bloodstream, which act as markers of disease. The Leeds research team, led by Dr Andrew Smith, has developed a technique to collect proteins from cells before they are released, which they will investigate for use as ‘biomarkers’ to monitor changes they will track as the disease develops.

Dr Smith, from the School of Biomedical Sciences, said: “Finding these biomarkers before they have been released from cells means that diabetes can be detected earlier, opening the door to strategies and treatments to prevent progression to fully-developed type-2 diabetes.

“These same biomarkers may also identify people with fully-established diabetes at high risk of heart attack, stroke or limb loss.

“It’s an exciting project and we’re very grateful to Heart Research UK for providing the funding.”

Professor Nick Wilson, who has produced a new report analysing the nature and scale of the 'equity gap'

Mind the Equity Gap

Companies in London, the South East and the East of England receive 75% of all equity investments in the UK – and that share is increasing over time, new research has shown.

Researchers at the universities of Leeds and Imperial College London tracked the value and number of equity finance deals into small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), knowledge-intensive and high-growth firms (HGFs) in the UK’s regions and nations between 2011 and 2017.

Three-quarters of all equity investments made by investors, including venture capital, private equity firms, crowd funders, angel investors and local and national government bodies, were into firms in London, the South East and the East of England.

Author, Professor Nick Wilson, of Leeds University Business School (LUBS), said: “Access to equity is important for fast-growing companies seeking to expand. But this research shows the challenges facing companies outside London, the South East and the East of England to tap into that investment.”

The research analysed the nature and scale of the ‘equity gap’ – the difference between potential demand among companies for equity investment and the supply of financing available. The overall equity gap – the total shortfall of equity funding in the economy – in 2017 was about £10.5bn.

Professor Wilson added: “The Government needs to do more to encourage equity firms to invest in the regions, by becoming a syndicated investor into businesses; offering incentives to equity firms to open offices outside London; and perhaps by extending existing tax incentives schemes.”

See the LUBS website for the full story and to access a copy of the report.

Academics have been researching the suitability of investment-based crowdfunding as an alternative form of finance for raising capital within the public sector

Financing for Society report launched

Academics in the School of Sociology and Social Policy have launched a report detailing the findings of a recent research project looking into a new model of finance for public organisations.

The project – Financing for Society: Assessing the Suitability of Crowdfunding for the Public Sector – was led by Dr Mark Davis, Associate Professor of Sociology and founder of The Bauman Institute. It ultimately assessed the suitability of investment-based crowdfunding as an alternative form of finance for raising capital within the public sector whilst building new networks of trust with local communities.

The research was supported by a pilot fund from UK Government and enabled the team at Leeds to work with six public sector case studies.

The landmark project report, co-authored by Dr Laura Cartwright, Research Fellow in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, was launched ahead of a crowdfunding workshop aimed at local authority employees, which will take place in June.

Visit The Bauman Institute website to read the full report.

Future Fashion Factory is harnessing existing design expertise and manufacturing assets in Yorkshire and the wider UK to drive growth in high-value national and international markets

Future Fashion Factory’s first innovation call boosts Yorkshire businesses

Yorkshire textile and fashion businesses are poised for an injection of support for collaborative research and development (R&D).

More than £230,000 has been allocated to nine separate industry-led R&D projects in the region in the first round of innovation calls made by Future Fashion Factory – a new £5.4 million programme supporting collaborative R&D in the UK fashion design and textile industry.

Six calls are planned for the Future Fashion Factory in the first four years of the programme, allowing companies to access R&D aimed at driving business growth – from designing new product lines and establishing new markets to developing and commercialising advanced technologies, improving productivity and reducing waste in the creative design and manufacturing process.

Led by Leeds alongside the University of Huddersfield and Royal College of Art, Future Fashion Factory is harnessing existing design expertise and manufacturing assets in Yorkshire and the wider UK to drive growth in high-value national and international markets. The venture is part of the Creative Industries Clusters Programme – an £80m initiative led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Stephen Russell, Future Fashion Factory Director and Professor of Textile Materials and Technology at Leeds, said: “Innovation has been at the heart of Yorkshire’s fashion and textile industry since its earliest days. We’re delighted to be part of this tradition by delivering ambitious projects that will add value to the businesses in the Future Fashion Factory, accelerating growth, creating new jobs and paving the way for innovative application of new digital and advanced textile technologies.”

Research Fellow, Dr Caroline Ward, in Madagascar conducting research on protected area co-management

Conserving biodiversity around the world

Helping local communities gain more meaningful participation in the set-up, management and governance of protected areas is the subject of a new research grant.

Protected areas are an important way of conserving biodiversity around the world.

But they change the way people use the environment, and can cause negative impacts on local communities, whose use of resources in these areas can be curtailed.

As borders between states are political rather than ecological, ecosystems often occur across national boundaries, and may be subject to different, or even conflicting, management and land use practices. Transboundary biosphere reserves (TBRs) provide a tool for common management of these areas.

Three academics from the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) at Leeds, in the School of Earth and Environment (SEE), have received £14,993 of Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration funding to address this issue. They will work with The Platform of Civil Society Organisations for the Safeguard of Mountains (PSM) in a partnership that shares and uses findings from their previous research in Zimbabwe and Madagascar to help inform the establishment of a new TBR across Ghana and Togo.

Lindsay Stringer, Professor in Environment and Development; Research Fellow, Dr Caroline Ward; and Associate Professor, Dr Martin Dallimer, will work with PSM through meetings and workshops to share their research findings on how local communities can participate in the creation of a TBR, and why this is important.

This short-term project will inform development of a programme of new research on the protected area establishment process, combining social science and ecological research. Overall, the trio aims to ensure the long-term sustainability of the protected area and its biodiversity whilst empowering local communities, creating benefits and opportunities for them.

Dr Ward said: “This is a really exciting opportunity to put research into action, and I’m looking forward to working with PSM to help establish a new protected area that can bring benefits for biodiversity and local communities.”

Professor Stringer added: “It’s great to be working with PSM and other stakeholders on this project. It is refreshing to see their enthusiasm for social science research in making sure the protected area achieves multiple benefits for both people and the environment.”

Apply to take part in the ESRC Festival of Social Science

Academics are alerted to new rules surrounding applications to this year’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

The Festival is designed to promote and increase awareness of social sciences and ESRC's research, enable social scientists to engage with non-academics and increase awareness of the contributions the social sciences make to the wellbeing and economy of UK society.

Each year the Festival offers a week of activities celebrating the diversity of social science research. This year it will run from the 2-9 November.

In previous years, applicants could apply directly to the ESRC. Now, they must be coordinated via the recently-awarded ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA).

The ESRC IAA will be supporting 10 events this year, with a maximum award of £1,000. However, if justification is provided for a more ambitious event, more funds can be awarded.

Please complete the Festival of Social Science application form and email it to Hannah Crow, Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI) Coordinator and IAA Manager, by noon on Friday 31 May. She can also be contacted for further information, or see the ESRC website.

Modelling for Materials Event

The Bragg Centre is hosting a community-building event for material modellers from 11am to 2pm on Wednesday 15 May.

This is an opportunity to share your research, see how others use modelling and learn more about the context for materials and data-centric research at Leeds.

Visit the registration website for further details, where you will also find the link to a short survey to complete on Modelling.

Research Spotlight video

Learn more about some of the incredible work taking place at Leeds in our new Research Spotlight video, available on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn.

How to feature in future round-ups

Please contact Internal Communications if you or one of your colleagues would like to appear in this monthly feature.

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