A record number of patients at the Royal Free London (RFL) have been recruited to National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) studies in the past year – thanks in part to a more streamlined process driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than 8,000 patients have been recruited into NIHR research in the past year – the highest number the trust has recruited to date and more than double the previous year’s activity (8,695 in 20/21 as compared to 4,247 in 19/20).

COVID-19 studies made up 32% of the NIHR studies. Specialities recording increases in recruitment of over 1,000 patients compared to the previous year include dementia, blood disorders, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and infectious diseases. 

Dr Hasan Tahir, a consultant rheumatologist at Barnet Hospital, said: “COVID has shown us how we can pool our resources together, with the amazing support of the trust, and channel them in the right places. During the pandemic I was able to work alongside a committed and enthusiastic team helping recruit to research trials, including the RECOVERY, CAN-COVID and COV-BARRIER trials to name but a few. We successfully recruited over 500 patients to the nationally recognised RECOVERY trial, helping identify a number of new treatments for COVID, which are now being used to successfully treat patients around the world.

“Going forward we plan to continue this momentum and enthusiasm, we should all encourage research as it drives innovation, quality, and productivity, which is essential in helping to improve and extend the lives of our patients.”

Dr Rajeev Jha, an intensive care consultant also based at Barnet Hospital, succeeded in recruiting more than 100 patients to his trials, which included the NIHR supported REMAP-CAP trial, designed to evaluate a number of treatment options simultaneously. 

He said: “Instead of taking a year which would be the usual amount of time to get a study set up we were able to get this trial up and running within weeks. This mattered hugely, especially in intensive care when it was literally about death or survival.”

Dr Jha was also principal investigator at the trust for a genomic COVID trial looking at the genetic make-up of the people who became very unwell with COVID-19 to see if there was anything genetically that would predispose someone to have a worse response.

He said: “The outcome of the research, published in Nature, showed there are indeed some genes that do predispose you to having a more adverse response to COVID-19. In the future we may be able to provide specific drug targeted therapy to help those people.”

He added: “We had a very good relationship with families who we were seeking consent from as often the patient was too unwell to provide consent until they were better. I want to pay tribute to the team involved, including the work of lead research nurse Vinood Krishnamurthy and to all the families and patients who put their trust in us.”

Michelle Anderson, senior research midwife for the RFL, has been working on several cross site studies, some COVID related and others not. Since research was set up in the maternity service in 2019 more than 500 women have been recruited to studies. 

One of the on-going non-COVID studies – ‘Big Baby’ - looks at women who are carrying slightly bigger than average babies to see if an earlier induction of labour could reduce the risk of shoulder dystocia, where the baby’s shoulder gets stuck against the public bone during labour, which can be traumatic for women and risky for their baby.

During the pandemic more than 200 women were recruited into a study focusing on the psychological impact of COVID-19.

Michelle said: “We are really trying to understand how women giving birth have been impacted by the pandemic and what the main anxieties were for them. Their questionnaires and some follow-up interviews will be used to feed into how we improve what we can offer if or when the next wave comes. It will also be interesting to see if there was an increase in postnatal depression as a consequence.”

Farhan Naim, director of research and development at the RFL, said: “I’d like to say a huge thank you to our investigators and our research staff who have put research at the heart of everything they do. We want to continue to embed research in our hospitals to make a difference to the lives of patients present and future.

Professor Derralynn Hughes, clinical director of research and development at the RFL, said: “This is a massive achievement from staff who have somehow found time this year to prioritise research within their busy roles. Their work has already resulted in life-saving treatments becoming standard practice, and paves the way for future success stories.”

Pic: L-R: Dr Rajeev Jha, Michelle Anderson, Dr Hasan Tahir