Case study:

Wessex Research Hubs

Wessex Research Hubs began as an emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic, enabling high-volume, high throughput vaccine trials.

Weymouth Research Hub

Set up by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) in partnership with health and care organisations across Wessex, the new research facilities enabled collaborative working across organisational boundaries, and ensured that Wessex could support the delivery of urgent public health studies. 

This critically important work played a key role in the national roll-out of vaccine – testing doses, combinations and boosters and ultimately helping map a way out of lockdown. 

The Wessex-led COV-BOOST study, supported across the hubs, provided the world’s first data on the safety, immune responses and side effects of third dose Covid-19 vaccines in mix and match schedules. The study was key to shaping the UK’s autumn 2021 booster programme, and provided vital evidence for global vaccination efforts.

By the time the pandemic was over, the hubs had developed into a unique and special service. With the infrastructure, skills and staffing solidly in place, dismantling such centres was unthinkable. Not only was there continued demand for the testing of Covid-19 vaccines, but for many other vaccines and treatments.

“You could help future generations with illnesses which at the moment there’s no treatment for.”

Trial participant

To date, this robust workflow maintains the hubs’ commercial viability. The network is now catering for major, international studies ranging from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) to whooping cough, Mpox, shingles and flu. The future vision is to cater for an even greater depth and variety of health and care studies, increasing access to research for patients and the public across Wessex. 

The network has expanded into four linked centres which share staff, expertise and resources. Each draws its participants from very different local populations, meaning recruitment reach is far greater than a single site could ever achieve. 

“I’ve come to the conclusion that if people don’t come forward to help with research we’re never going to move forward with vaccines or treatments.”

Trial participant

The model is mutually supportive; if one hub is struggling to recruit to a study, the other hubs share the load. Equally if one centre over-recruits, participants can be passed to a neighbouring hub. 

Weymouth is the most recent facility to open, and showcases a desire to serve under-served areas - in this case a coastal community with high levels of economic and social deprivation. The hub is supported by a specialised programme of engagement to help build trust in clinical research. 

With the hubs so embedded in their local communities, participants report very high satisfaction rates. They are happy to make return visits and often take part in multiple studies. They feel well informed about the study, understand what is involved, and find taking part a rewarding experience. Such high recruitment and retention rates are a major advantage of this unique model. Active social media accounts are helping boost engagement and interaction.

“Every new treatment has to go through a process of clinical research. And without yourselves helping us there cannot be any clinical research. We are here to develop new treatments that will help you and your family into the future.”

Paul Walters, Associate Medical Director, Dorset HealthCare University NHS Foundation Trust

Not only do study sponsors benefit from extended recruitment across multiple locations, they sign a single contract and interact with one project management team, which streamlines the setting up of each study. University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust takes full legal and governance responsibility for the trials. 

Our hubs are also supported by local primary care networks, with research active GP surgeries contracted to send out text alerts to patients who meet specific study criteria and eligibility. This again supports recruitment in a highly targeted way. 

The network is likely to expand, with further centres due to open in towns and cities in the Wessex area. 

This makes the hubs, which are part of Wessex Health Partners, a shining example of collaborative working and how to take research out into the community, for the benefit of the Wessex population.

“We’re delighted to see the opening of the Weymouth Research Hub, which will bring exciting new opportunities for the local community to join research studies into health and wellbeing. It’s fantastic to see organisations across Wessex forming new partnerships and collaborations, making participating in research easier and ensuring we meet the needs of whole communities. This will benefit the local population and wider society, helping people live healthier and better lives now, and in the future.”

Christine McGrath, Managing Director of Wessex Health Partners

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