Trials By Bus

January 12, 2012
Marylyn Donahue

Applied Clinical Trials

It may look like a bus, it may drive like a bus, but really it is a clinical trial on wheels.

Launched last June, The Health Research Bus (HRB) is the first facility of its kind in the UK. It took two years to build and cost $400,000. Funded by the Birmingham Science City Partnership and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham Charity as part of its Research Grants program, and led jointly by the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick, the Bus operates in collaboration with regional healthcare providers including University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and Birmingham Children’s NHS Trust.

The new HRB bus’s goal is nothing less than revolutionizing how clinical research for major health issues like diabetes, obesity, and aging is carried out in a community and often in hard to reach communities where recruiting for trials may not extend. The mobile clinical research facility travels to areas where patients are clustered—retirement communities for dementia studies or schools for pediatric trials—and allows the patients there to be seen by coordinators and principal investigators on the bus.

Painted a vibrant blue, the HRB is the size of a semi-tractor trailer at 44 feet long and 21 feet wide. It’s hard to miss and indeed it caused quite a stir last March on its maiden voyage into the town marketplace. 

Its mission was to be present in the center on four separate dates. Members of the public were being invited to take part in research studies organized by the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The first was to collect DNA samples to be used as a healthy comparison against a bank of samples for patients suffering from a disease called vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels).

“We want to find out if there are certain genetic traits that the patients display so we need a wide range of samples from non-disease sufferers to compare them with,” explains Julie Williams, PhD, Laboratory Manager/Translational Scientist at the University of Birmingham.

The second study was to recruit healthy volunteers and measure their immune response to a benign virus in their system. This will help in the treatment of patients with lupus (an autoimmune disease) in which there is thought to be an increased reactivity. Patient samples have already been obtained and this study now needed healthy volunteers for comparison.

The third study was to be look at levels of fatigue in patients with vasculitis as this has a huge impact on their quality of life. “Again, we were looking for healthy volunteers to compare with our patient cohorts,” says Williams.

On each occasion, the curious were free to climb aboard, meet the coordinatoras—a principal investigator and a lab manager—and tour the facility, which includes a waiting area, an exam room, a lab, a DXA (bone density) scanner, a bathroom, and a kitchen.

In its first day at the market, the bus doubled enrollment for a vasculitis study that needed DNA samples from healthy patients. In addition, about 200 people inquired about a blood-pressure study.

The bus will continue to enable clinical researchers in Birmingham to access a large population of diverse ethnic and socio-economic mix in the surrounding community,” says Professor Paul Stewart, Dean of Medicine at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility. “In doing so, it will widen participation in clinical trials across all sectors of society through a start-of-the-art facility linked back to our hospital base at the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Trust. The bus will be a crucial way of rapidly conducting trials and ensuring their results are implemented quickly for improved the health."

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