Edinburgh academics support digital health innovation from germ of idea to effective treatment

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the world to challenge traditional ways of working, innovate and accelerate transformation, particularly through digital solutions. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to health and the use of data, which has been instrumental in catalysing treatment strategies (for example rapid vaccine approval), tracking infection (track and trace apps) and public health (informing outbreak control measures).

The power of data, particularly real-world data comes from linking and aggregating different datasets such as patient health records, genomics, social and environmental data. This can be used to generate new actionable insights into disease, accelerate therapeutic development and improve standards of care, resulting in significant time and cost savings.

The University of Edinburgh has long recognised the power of real-world data. Using routinely collected hospital data, Professor Nick Mills and co-workers determined that women were under-diagnosed with heart attack, findings that have updated the universal definition of heart attack. More recently, the university, with partners, has been leading the development of new data infrastructures such as the HDR UK BREATHE Hub, which brings together respiratory health data to address conditions such as asthma and COPD, and also DataLoch to enable innovation in health interventions.

DataLoch is developing a unique data resource, integrating not just healthcare information but also social care data for the Edinburgh and South East Scotland region to provide a holistic overview of the patient journey. In response to Covid-19, the DataLoch team curated data that supported hospitals in managing service provision through the crisis, as well being a living asset that is contributing to regional and national research. As DataLoch grows, there are significant opportunities to use this data to influence and inform therapeutic strategies, contribute to clinical trials through synthetic control arms and improve clinical practice.

The pandemic has also highlighted the use of smart technologies and sensors for remote patient monitoring which allows for continuous gathering of data, rather than a reliance on in-clinic assessment. This environment can catalyse the development of digital biomarkers. These are derived from patient-generated outputs (such as heart rate, movement, temperature etc), collected by wearable sensors, and connected to a health-related outcome. Like molecular biomarkers, these can be used to inform diagnoses, treatments and medical support.

Digital biomarkers are particularly useful in diseases where progression is gradual and early detection is challenging, such as neurodegenerative disorders. For example, Dr Saturnino Luz, (based at the university’s Usher Institute) and his team have been applying machine learning to determine vocal biomarkers for the detection of Alzheimer’s disease before clinical symptoms present themselves.

As digital health comes of age, there are still many challenges to overcome, including validation, standardisation and the regulatory pathways that govern it; maximising potential is reliant on robust data, highly skilled data scientists and collaboration with clinical expertise. The University of Edinburgh brings these three pillars together, creating a holistic approach to healthcare innovation and is actively engaging new partners both academic and industrial. Having held a hugely successful online event “Innovations in Digitally Enabled Clinical Trials” last year to catalyse new partnerships, the university is driving forward collaborative and innovative approaches in this space.

It is precisely this kind of joined up approach that our campaign, Bench to Bedside, aims to showcase. Launched earlier this month by Edinburgh Innovations and the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, it highlights our ability to support digital health innovation from idea, through research and, towards impact via collaboration, licensing or the formation of a spin out company.

Indeed, our recent track record underlines that ability with five spinouts over the last year and significant increases in industry collaborations and translational funding. Our campaign show- cases our world-leading facilities across four different campuses and our academic superstars who have been at the forefront of this innovative activity.

What the Bench to Bedside campaign truly highlights is the impressive breadth of activity and expertise at the University of Edinburgh.

With the current transformation in the digital health sphere our business partners know that, at the University of Edinburgh, they are supported throughout the innovation pipeline, from Bench to Bedside.


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