This was a key message delivered at a partnership launch event in London, UK, earlier this week (September 27th) hosted by Ageing Research at King’s College London (ARK) and the European Society of Preventive Medicine (ESPM).
Ageing Research at King's (ARK) is a cross-faculty multidisciplinary consortium of investigators which brings together scholarship and research in ageing while ESPM is a not-for-profit organisation facilitating research and advancements in the field of preventive, predictive, personalised and participatory medicine.
The partnership involves a series of public engagement events, academic-industry workshops, and education activities for researchers and healthcare professionals.
Speaking at the launch event, Prof Pekka Puska, renowned Finnish doctor and politician, asserted: "We are convinced that preventive health targeting risk factors through health promotion policies is key to public health.
"But how can we influence political decision making?... We need comprehensive strategies which move from criticising politicians to mobilising people."
UK's most representative databank
Health experts at the event agreed that truly representative data is essential for influencing policy. With that, Raghib Ali, CMO of Our Future Health UK, informed delegates about the UK’s largest health research programme which, in partnership with the NHS, aims to harness a variety of data points from five million people to allow for the early detection and prevention of non-communicable diseases.
The aim is to create the most detailed and demographically representative picture ever of the population’s health, from questionnaires, blood tests, wearable data, NHS and other health care records, with data being shared publicly, creating a huge opportunity for academics across public and private sectors.
Ali asserted: “Research so far has been too narrow to represent the entire population… Unless we have a study that is representative of all people in the population we will never really know how receptors are different and what interventions work best in those groups so this is the first study to do that.
“This will become a useful data source for all researchers and there will be no preferential treatment to commercial parties,” Ali promised.
After launching the project 11 months ago, there have already been 865,000 online volunteers who are at various stages of their enrolment. Participants are being enrolled via clinics across the UK, and initial questionnaire data is already being made available to researchers. Genotype data will be made available from early next year and, in the future, data collected from wearables will also be available.
To encourage continual participation, volunteers will also be given the option to receive feedback about their risk of some diseases and will have the opportunity to take part in cutting-edge research studies.
Prof Dag Aarsland, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at King's College London, explained that 40% of Dementia causes are modifiable lifestyle factors creating a big opportunity for preventive solutions.
Delegates heard how researchers at KCL and Imperial College London are utilising new wearable and in-home monitoring technologies to track participants in clinical trials in a bid to discover patterns which will allow them to predict and prevent hospitalisations in the future.
Discussing the huge potential of tech-enabled research, Claire Steves, Professor of Ageing and Health at King's Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine who helped developed the Zoe Health Study (aka the COVID symptom study), described how technology can be used to conduct de-centralised research across a huge cohort of volunteers.
She explained Zoe's COVID app reached 4.7million people and the discoveries from the data were used to inform policy and even influence WHO advice. For example, it led to a better knowledge of the symptoms and the differences in how cohorts of the population were effected by the disease.
Exemplifying the importance of communication of research, she noted that Zoe co-founder Prof Tim Spector was integral in getting the word out to the media and keeping users interested and engaged by informing of the data patterns and what they mean in practice.
“It’s important for researchers to partner with people who can connect them to the right people,” she asserted.
Discussing the importance of communicating research, Lisa Ireland, President and CEO of the global non-profit organisation Longevity Science Foundation, explained that her foundation focuses on sponsoring early-stage research that will help to grow health span.
“Scientists are very good at doing the research but if you are not so good at selling that research to get that funding, maybe that doesn’t go forward," she asserted. "So partnering with those of us that can tell your story in layman’s terms is a key component so I’m happy to be supporting that cause.”