A unique venture, bringing together Cambridge University doctors and scientists and a multi-million pharmaceutical company to tackle the causes and treatment of strokes and heart attacks, has won the largest ever Government award under the Technology Foresight Challenge scheme. Leading experts in brain and heart disease, aided by unrivalled technology, will work together in the newly-created Cambridge Cerebrovascular Centre to fight the diseases which are the biggest causes of death in the developed world.
Joint action between a drug company, in this case SmithKline Beecham, and a University School of Clinical Medicine, is still relatively novel. The Government's award of £4 million through the Medical Research Council is a recognition of the power of such a highly-equipped partnership to achieve results. The aim is not just to provide more effective treatment for patients who already have problems but to identify those people at greater risk of high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks and to develop new drugs, both to prevent and treat these conditions.
The British Heart Foundation, the Wolfson Trust, the University of Cambridge and SmithKline Beecham have together funded the consortium that won the Technology Foresight Challenge award.
The project is housed in a new £11.5 million building on the site of the renowned Addenbrooke's Hospital. Key to the whole project is the new Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, the only unit for patients with acute brain injury with two state-of-the-art scanners.
As well as offering hope for better treatment for people who have already suffered brain damage, the two scanners will also be harnessed in the hope of detecting early signs of strokes and heart disease. Side by side with this work, research is going on to try to establish whether the tendency to high blood pressure lies in the genes and also whether there are some people who carry an extra genetic risk of strokes. Again the hope is to target early, forestalling the need for treatment.
Neurosurgeon Professor John Pickard is Director of the Centre. 'Nobody else in the world has got all these facilities', he says. Professor Pickard uses the analogy of an engine to outline the different functions of the new high-powered scanners. The MR (Magnetic Resonance) scanner reveals the structure; the PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanner shows small explosions and the forces at work as the petrol drives the engine. 'So you need both', he explains.
In the last 20 years, death rates for people with acute brain injury have almost been halved because of good medical care. And that does not mean simply keeping people alive - the numbers of severely disabled patients and those in a vegetative state have dropped too. 'We are trying to improve the management of patients with acute brain injury and to explore exciting new drugs', Professor Pickard says. He believes strongly that people should act far more quickly on signs of a minor stroke - like short periods when a person is unable to speak - because so much can be done to help. 'One of the problems we have to change is the perception of the general public that once you have had a stroke, there is nothing you can do about it. That is not true. If you have a stroke and nobody does anything, you can end up in a nursing home for the next 10 or 20 years. That fatalism is dangerous,' he points out.