Research Champion for Health and Wellbeing: Professor Karen Bloor

Our research champions outlined the challenges and opportunities facing researchers within each of their themes at a research showcase in October 2015 to mark the inauguration of the University’s new Chancellor, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant.

Professor Karen Bloor told the audience that she is passionate about using research to make a difference to the quality of our lives...

Although perhaps best known for its work in health economics, Professor Bloor showed how York has expertise right across the critical pathway in health research, from fundamental science in the laboratory to direct patient care: from the bench to the bedside.

Drawing on the Cooksey review into health research funding, Professor Bloor illustrated how, at each step along this pathway, York’s researchers are breaking new ground.

At the basic science end of the pathway she highlighted the work of researchers exploring the biology of cells in the walls of the bladder and on the mathematics of viruses. Moving along the pathway, she showed how we are developing new imaging techniques (vital for early diagnosis and treatment), and novel applications for low temperature plasmas (with a potential role in cancer therapies).

Karen Bloor is Professor of Health Economics and Policy in the Department of Health Sciences where she works on research relating to the financing and delivery of health care. Recently she contributed to a major study on variations in health care across Europe.

Here her presentation resonated clearly with Professor Thomas Krauss’s research theme – Technologies for the Future – which showed how our investigations into the very stuff of the universe, matter and life, is being translated into real world applications.

Nearer the centre of the pathway, Professor Bloor illustrated our strengths by looking at important research into stem cells in prostate cancer, and the pioneering work carried out at the Centre for Immunology and Infection. She also mentioned the York Clinical Research Facility where the hard graft of fundamental research is moving much closer to vaccines and therapies.

York Trials Unit

And then, closer to the actual delivery end of the pathway, she highlighted the role of York Trials Unit, and of a new clinical partnership to focus on trials in orthopaedic surgery, before moving on to home turf with the Centre for Health Economics and the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, who are developing, refining and applying methods of health technology appraisal.

But we don’t stop at producing the evidence, she said. In York we have always striven to distil and communicate evidence to inform clinical practice. The importance of communication ( Dr Mark Jenner’s research theme) was also identified by Professor Kate Pickett as integral to ensuring that solid research has the maximum impact (in her case through the use of film, theatre, cartoons, music and dance). In Professor Bloor’s case, effective communication enables us to better influence clinical decisions and health policy making, for example, through assessing the effectiveness, efficiency, and equity of health care across the NHS.

Biomarker

So, she asked, given how good we are at this, why do we need a research strategy and champion? For Professor Bloor – as for the other champions – the answer is to be found in communication and culture (itself a cross-cutting research theme). In her case, encouraging communication between the steps, and creating a culture that encourages people to work together across the pathway. As an example she looked at the options of how to develop the potential of a circulating biomarker for lung cancer which York researchers are working on, and which shows real promise in terms of diagnostic accuracy.

The gene is known as CIZ1, and York has created a spin-off company, Cizzle Biotech, to develop it further. But questions remain, particularly at which stage of the disease the test should be targeted. Should there be a screening programme for all patients at risk, for example all smokers? Should we use the blood test to confirm a diagnosis after scans, when images are unclear? Or should we use it to assess response to treatment, or to monitor recurrence at a later stage?

These are not questions for a biologist alone – we need clinicians, statisticians, epidemiologists and health economists, to consider the best focus for future research and to maximise its value. How exciting would it be for researchers at York to follow this kind of intervention, literally, all the way from the bench to the bedside?

Contributions to wellbeing

But Professor Bloor’s theme extends beyond health, to the wider notion of wellbeing, where she was again able to show the strength and depth that York research has along the critical research pathway. Health is only one contributor to wellbeing, as she illustrated by considering the life of students on the campus. While the provision of medical services is important, she also asked how much more wellbeing is created by the college system, by friendships, relationships with tutors, by the clubs and societies students join, the decisions they make, by the sports facilities, the University Choir and the beautiful views of autumn around the lake? All of these things matter to fundamental wellbeing, she said, and they illustrate well the overlap between York’s research themes.

Again, York academics work across the spectrum of wellbeing research – from observing brain responses to stimuli in the neuroimaging centre to designing, piloting and evaluating interventions to improve learning in schools, and reduce loneliness in older age.

Science of happiness

As Professor Pickett had done, she also mentioned that we are very much a northern university. As a final reflection on her experience so far as research champion, she detected something of a North/South divide in the approach taken to wellbeing. Our colleagues at the London School of Economics have very much embraced this agenda, developing a whole new ‘science of happiness’. But this is Yorkshire, and her sense is that we need a different approach. Her provisional book title (‘Don’t let the #@$&*$!s cheer you up’), and her invitation for others to join her in co-authoring the volume brought loud laughter from the audience.

Her talk concluded with two thoughts. First, that here in York we have amazing research happening across the health and wellbeing pathways – from the intra-cellular level all the way through to influencing global policy. But sometimes, she said, we need to work together more, to communicate better in order to join the steps of this pathway together. This will help make the journey across the critical pathway a little less daunting, and, just as importantly, it would allow us to enjoy each other’s company along the way.