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Jane Blazeby: Bringing people together to deliver COVID-19 research

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a research group was set up across the University of Bristol and University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust. The group has been invaluable in bringing people together to deliver research and share learning.

We spoke with Professor Jane Blazeby, Professor of Surgery at the University of Bristol and Honorary Consultant Surgeon at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW), who set up the group, to find out more. 

"When the pandemic hit back in March surgical research was put on hold and there was talk of some staff being redeployed to clinical work or shielding. We have eight teams of research staff at UHBW who work on research projects across the different specialties; they wanted to continue to work on research. 

"I suggested that we see whether we could help to run the COVID-19 studies and in particular RECOVERY. I spoke with the Trust who were happy for me to take on the leadership role of overseeing COVID-19 clinical research projects in the hospital. After commencing RECOVERY (led amazingly by Ms Natalie Blencowe), and then REMAP-CAP (led by Dr Jeremy Bewley), we identified other studies that we could help with including the vaccine studies (which have been brilliantly led by Dr Rajeka Lazarus). 

"I set up the COVID-19 research group because I felt it was important to bring colleagues from the Trust and University together. I set a meeting time and invited consultants, initially holding one overarching meeting, with about 20 consultants from across all specialties, followed by sub meetings. During the first intense wave of the pandemic, we had four meetings every week, each lasting for an hour, to sort out efficient delivery of the randomised trials and observational studies. I did this by creating a small executive group including Dr Ben Gibbison, Dr Rachel Brierley, Rebecca Lambert and Dr Rajeka Lazurus.

"It was an opportunity to keep people up to date on what was happening with COVID-19 research. We would discuss findings and what was being reported in the news. The aim was that the meetings were educational and fun, as well as organisational. There were opportunities to guess what we thought the findings from the studies would be (we all got it wrong with the dexamethasone findings in RECOVERY). We also had discussions around consent and how to protect staff and patients, as some of the doctors were not experienced in research. 

"The meetings provided an opportunity for cross speciality collaboration. I also worked with the Trust to oversee implementation of study results and the distribution of drugs (e.g. Remdesivir). This included ensuring that the RECOVERY trial results about the steroid dexamethasone, which improves survival rates in certain coronavirus patients, was implemented. Another great outcome from the work was the UNITE database, led by Dr Ben Gibbison and Dr Mark Lyttle. Through the meetings we realised that individual teams were entering the same data on the same patients on different databases. We wanted to make this process more efficient and so the UNITE database was developed - it’s a central database, where data is entered once and could be downloaded into the eight observational COVID-19 studies. This had never been done by the Trust before. 

"We went from a group of people who didn’t know each other, to all working together and running the trials. I have enjoyed working with different people from different specialties. It’s an example of how a university and hospital can work together to the benefit of patients, staff and the NHS. 

"I felt as if I was well prepared to take on this role. I spend my life collaborating with people about surgery, it was a great opportunity to use these skills to set up and facilitate the group."

Interested in finding out more about a career in research? As the largest funder of health (and care) research training in the UK, the NIHR can support you to develop your career in research. Find out more about Your Path in Research.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.