Annual Review 2020: Health and Care Research

Insight into cells' 'self-eating' process could pave the way for new dementia treatments

 The process by which cells undergo autophagy – or ‘self-eating’ – thus helping the body to destroy bacteria and viruses after infection, was the focus of a major research paper by medical scientists this year. Published in Nature Communications, the paper shed new light on the mechanisms behind how it works, and how it fails, in particular something called ‘liquid-liquid phase separation’. The team believe the findings could provide the first steps towards new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

By understanding more about autophagy and the details of the processes involved, we can identify what might be going wrong, and therefore where to target when it comes to tackling neurodegenerative diseases. This research is a major step in helping us to do that.

Shouqing Luo, Professor of Neurobiology, Peninsula Medical School.


Detailed Image of Stem Cell. Image courtesy of GettyImages. &nbsp;<br></p>

multi pipette research of cancer stem cells

<p>Shutterstock image of cells</p>

Results of long-term cohort study could help identify children at risk of type 2 diabetes

The findings of a unique study, which has followed 300 healthy children in Plymouth for 15 years to determine who would become at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and why, were published during the year. Conducted by researchers in the Peninsula Medical School and Nestlé, the EarlyBird project has monitored the children from the age of five to early adulthood to explore how their metabolism changes during growth. The latest results, published in Diabetes Care, show that the earliest event leading to pre-diabetes is dysfunction of the pancreatic beta-cell, independent of body weight. Beta-cells in the pancreas produce insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. The study also showed that this beta-cell dysfunction was associated with the presence of genetic factors previously associated with type 2 diabetes in adults.

The rapidly rising prevalence of type 2 diabetes is one of the biggest global health challenges, and there is an urgent need to develop effective strategies for early intervention and prevention. The research partnership between the University and Nestlé has shown how the risks of future type 2 diabetes can be predicted in childhood. This opens up the possibility of individualised advice and early intervention to reduce the risks of future type 2 diabetes.

Jon Pinkney, Professor of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Peninsula Medical School, and Honorary Consultant Physician in Endocrinology and Diabetes at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust

Research offers fresh perspective on mouthwash


Dental researchers published two high-profile studies this year, revealing the impact that commonly used mouthwash can have upon the body. The first, working with the Centre for Genomic Regulation, in Barcelona, and published in the Radical Biology & Medicine journal, showed that mouthwash can counterattack the beneficial blood-pressure – lowering effect of exercise by more than 60% over the first hour of recovery, and totally abolishing it two hours after exercise when participants were given the antibacterial mouthwash.

The second major piece of research, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that mouthwash can increase the amount of lactate-producing bacteria, which lowers pH, making saliva more acidic and thus increasing the risk of tooth damage. The team looked at the effects of chlorhexidine mouthwash on the whole oral microbiome, and after seven days they found it reduced microbial diversity and increased the abundance of species within the families Firmicutes and Proteobacteria.

There is a surprising lack of knowledge and literature behind the use of these products. Chlorhexidine mouthwash is widely used but research has been limited to its effect on a small number of bacteria linked to particular oral diseases, and most has been carried out in vitro.

Dr Raul Bescos, Lecturer in Dietetics and Physiology, School of Health Professions

Disabled former musicians offered return to the stage

A potentially life-changing project was launched during the year to help injured or ill former musicians reconnect with the joy of playing. The Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research is working with people (such as ex-military or emergency services) who, through physical injury or mental illness, are no longer able to play their instruments. The work will involve making individual adaptations to the way instruments are played, and providing psychological support. The project is the brainchild of composer Dr Nuria Bonet, and Charlotte Storey, former Head of Voice in Plymouth Conservatoire. Music will be composed specifically for participants and their abilities, with a series of rehearsals culminating in a public performance by the group at a future date.

We want to change the way we think about disabled musicians. It’s not about forcing them into ‘normality’, it’s about celebrating what they can do.

Dr Nuria Bonet, Associate Lecturer, School of Humanities and Performing Arts


A new method of tooth repair

By uncovering both the new stem cells that make up the main body of a tooth and establishing the vital use of Dlk1 in regenerating the tissue, we have taken major steps in understanding stem cell regeneration.

Bing Hu, Professor of Oral Biology, Peninsula Dental School

An international team of researchers, led by Professor Bing Hu, unveiled new research on a potentially novel solution to tooth repair. Professor Hu and his team have discovered a new population of mesenchymal stem cells (the stem cells that make up skeletal tissue such as muscle and bone) in a continuously growing mouse incisor model. In a paper, published in Nature Communications, they showed that these cells contribute to the formation of tooth dentin, the hard tissue that covers the main body of a tooth. Importantly, the work showed that when they are activated, they send signals back to the mother cells of the tissue to control the number of cells produced, through a molecular gene called Dlk1. Their paper was the first to show that Dlk1 is vital for this process to work, and went on to prove that it can enhance stem cell activation and tissue regeneration in a tooth wound healing model. This mechanism could provide a novel solution for tooth reparation, in combating problems such as tooth decay and trauma treatment.

<p>Dentistry image</p>
<p>Dentist hands<br></p>

Test bed for cutting-edge health technology welcomes world's most advanced social robot

A robot that has featured on the cover of Time magazine was brought to the country for the first time to be tested by health technology experts working on a multimillion-euro project in Cornwall. Stevie, 'the world’s most advanced social robot', arrived in the UK from Washington, courtesy of the University’s Centre for Health Technology, to be trialled at a day centre in Camborne. Stevie carried out a range of activities and tasks such as leading a game of bingo, as well as simply spending time with clients. Researchers monitored his performance and gathered feedback from staff, as part of the eHealth Productivity and Innovation in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (EPIC) project.

It is an honour to have hosted Stevie at the University and to work with him in a care setting, and it shows the idea of ‘Testbed Cornwall’ already has the clout to attract world-leading technology.

Ray Jones, Professor of Health Informatics, School of Nursing and Midwifery, and Project Lead for EPIC.

Developing animal vaccines for COVID-19

A University spinout company, led by a renowned biomedical scientist, is making significant progress in the development of a vaccine that could be used to tackle COVID-19 in animals. The Vaccine Group, incorporated from the work of Dr Michael Jarvis, has been researching the virus since the pandemic began and announced that its first two possible vaccines had proven successful in pre-animal trial laboratory testing. Its aim now is to develop vaccines so as to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in existing animal sources. The vaccines could also be used to ensure cats, which have already been shown can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, and other pets do not become a reservoir for future outbreaks. The company is also investigating the longer-term potential of human vaccines; the next stage of development will be vital in assessing the technology’s safety and efficacy for use in humans.

The ability to control SARS-CoV-2 and prevent COVID-19 re-emerging from animal populations might become a key tool in the fight against this pandemic. Our vaccine platform appears able to induce immunity at sites where SARS-CoV-2 replicates. Whilst we are initially testing the efficacy of our vaccines in animals, positive data would open up the possibility of rapidly moving to a human vaccine.

Dr Michael Jarvis, Associate Professor (Reader) in Virology and Immunology, School of Biomedical Sciences, and Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of The Vaccine Group


Research and Enterprise

The University has a proud reputation for conducting world-leading, impactful research across a broad range of fields. From health technologies to heritage; marine sciences to medicine; psychology to sustainability. And alongside these sustained peaks of excellence, the University is fast developing a critical mass of expertise in emerging, exciting areas such as agritechnology, antimicrobial resistance, cybersecurity and creative economies.

Our University draws upon its location to maximise these research strengths. Across marine sciences and maritime, we’re able to take advantage of the breathtaking natural environment of Plymouth Sound (the first National Marine Park), as well as the many marine-related companies that are based here. To this natural laboratory we have added a waterfront Marine Station, home to our expanding fleet of research and teaching vessels, and a nationally leading Marine Building, with its wave tanks and navigation centre, and we are developing a cutting-edge Cyber-SHIP Lab to tackle the issue of cybersecurity in the maritime sector.

In health and care research, we take advantage of our co-location and partnership with the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust. Our Derriford Research Facility, located adjacent to the hospital, is home to medical and biomedical experts conducting research into areas such as infection and immunity, neurodegenerative diseases, brain tumours and antimicrobial resistance.

We are leading the development of potentially the first new antibiotic in 30 years and the first vaccines for the animal population against COVID-19. And adding to our first-class facilities, a new Brain Research and Imaging Centre is due to open, which will include the most advanced MRI scanner in the region.

Finally, our Sustainable Earth Institute (SEI) – our third overarching strategic research institute – continues to build innovative partnerships with industry and government, not just here in the South West, but also overseas. Operating from the new Sustainability Hub on campus, the SEI acts as a catalyst whereby University expertise can be applied to a range of challenges, from the low carbon agenda to water quality and food security in the developing world. Over the following pages, we present some of the developments and successes that have defined the year, including the publication of groundbreaking work in high-impact journals, the winning of major funding grants, our partnerships with industry, and the recognition of our staff in identifying and solving problems of global significance. The University’s research community is flourishing, ready to respond to global challenges and opportunities.

Professor Jerry Roberts
Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Research and Enterprise