Feature interview: New Dean of Medicine Professor David Adams

01 October 2013

The new Dean of Medicine at the University of Birmingham, Professor David Adams will play a key role in one of the most important clinical research programmes in Europe.  How does he feel about the future of clinical research in the city?  What is the next big thing?  Gareth Duggan spoke with him to find out…

Prof David Adams

His new role ranges from leading one of the most respected medical schools in Europe to being a champion for clinical research.  And that’s not to mention leading his own liver research programme, the NIHR  Biomedical Research Unit,  and treating patients. 

The notion of building a bright future on such firm foundations clearly animates a man who is already highly regarded as a researcher and clinician in the field of liver medicine.

He is currently an editor of the American Journal of Physiology and special section editor for the Journal of Hepatology.  He has served on the scientific committee and governing board of the European Association for Study of the Liver and sits on its ethics committee.  He has also been a councillor for the European Society for Organ Transplantation and was made a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2000.  He is both a practising consultant in liver medicine at University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) and a Professor of Hepatology at the University of Birmingham.

His research into chronic liver disease is informing the development of new therapies including cell therapy for this condition, so he is intimately familiar with the opportunities and challenges of carrying out clinical research.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that where you have areas of research excellence they are mirrored by areas of clinical excellence, and vice-versa. But here at UHB they get that connection,” he says.

The collaboration between the University of Birmingham and UHB, one of the UK’s leading tertiary institutions, is formalised as Birmingham Health Partners (BHP), which also includes the Birmingham Children’s hospital (BCH), allowing Birmingham to take an ageless approach to research with one of the largest clinical trials programmes in Europe.

“BHP is a fantastic initiative,” says Prof Adams. “It provides the structure and framework for the collaborations which are vital for moving us forward.”

“Within BHP there are several initiatives that embody that excellence. The most obvious is the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, a state-of-the-art, purpose-built unit for experimental medicine with a satellite facility at BCH.  This joint resource has effectively forced us to develop new joint ways of working between the Institutions.”

“I‘ve been around for quite some time, and I can’t remember a time when there was such a good relationship between the University and UHB, such an understanding and willingness to collaborate.”

That collaboration manifests itself in centres of research which are blossoming across UHB, and the University.  Cancer, trauma, burns, liver medicine, medical devices, ageing, arthritis and inflammatory conditions, all these now have dedicated groups of clinicians, researchers and the essential support services which enable their work.

“Money is coming from the NHS for research that is jointly run by UoB and UHB. You can also see it in the Institute for Translational Medicine, for which we have joint funding from the University, UHB and from government through the City Deal.”

“UHB has always valued research but one of the things that has changed the landscape in the last few years has been the NIHR, which has provided significant amounts of funding for clinical research focused through the NHS.   That has made everyone sit up and take notice.”

And where is the future of medical research in Birmingham?

“The really big disease burden is chronic disease and most of these are driven by chronic inflammation,” says Prof Adams.

“That means a lot of opportunities in areas like renal failure, liver disease, rheumatic conditions, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.   If we can better understand the underlying inflammatory processes we can take big steps forward,” he says.

One promising research avenue for many of these conditions is cell therapy, in which new cells are introduced to treat damaged or diseased tissues. Birmingham has developed world leading facilities for research into this form of treatment.

“Cell therapy is one area which hasn’t been looked into as much as it could be, and it is still an emerging therapy.”

“Using cells rather than, say, organ transplants could transform how we treat these conditions. But we have to get the economic model right to make it viable.”

“For example, with liver transplantation one criticism was the cost.  At the time there was no economic model for it but as it turns out, a liver transplant is a highly cost-effective way to treat someone with chronic liver disease.”

“Before we commit large sums of money to developing cell therapy we need to use economic models to show that if it does work we can deliver cost-effective treatment and a good therapeutic model.”

Ultimately, research is driven by dedicated people who have the experience, ability, motivation and resources to pursue new ideas in their field of expertise. Prof Adams knows that, in the unique relationship between UHB and the University, this means engaging with hospital Consultants whose time and energy is already in huge demand to treat patients.

Surrounded by both eminent history and an exciting present, Prof Adams has the opportunity to make a big difference.