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£3.4m funding granted to Royal Papworth researchers to probe machine-learning technology for cystic fibrosis and NCFB patients

Researchers at Royal Papworth Hospital have been awarded £3.4million for new UK-wide trials to investigate if machine-learning technology can transform how people living with chronic respiratory conditions manage their health.

They will explore home monitoring and the use of decision-support algorithms for people with cystic fibrosis (CF) and non-CF bronchiectasis (NCFB).

Earlier work suggests the approach could help spot the signs of lung infections days before symptoms appear, preventing admissions to hospital.

CF patient Steve Churchill takes a lung function home test
CF patient Steve Churchill takes a lung function home test

The team previously ran a multi-centre UK feasibility study called SmartCare CF that showed the potential benefits of home monitoring in CF and then ran a clinical implementation programme - Project Breathe - that introduced home monitoring into routine clinical care in four CF centres in the UK and Ontario, Canada.

Under that scheme, research participants were provided with equipment such as a FitBit, pulse oximeter, spirometer and electronic scales to measure key indicators such as blood oxygen levels, lung function, weight, sleep and temperature every day.

They uploaded the results via a software platform, called Breathe RM, and the anonymised information has now been used by data scientists from the University of Cambridge and Microsoft Research to train machine-learning algorithms that could predict future health deteriorations 10 days earlier than currently possible.

The approach would allow clinicians to treat patients much sooner and ward off serious, lung damaging infections.

Medical research charity LifeArc has awarded £1.9million, while the National Institute for Health and Care Research is giving £1.5m to test the artificial intelligence technology at scale in a clinical trial.

Prof Andres Floto, at Royal Papworth Hospital. Picture: Keith Heppell
Prof Andres Floto, at Royal Papworth Hospital. Picture: Keith Heppell

The University of Cambridge’s Professor Andres Floto, honorary consultant at the Cambridge Centre for Lung Infection at Royal Papworth Hospital, will lead the team.

He said: “These studies are incredibly exciting. They have the potential to provide both immediate and long-term benefits to people living with chronic and debilitating lung conditions.

“It is a unique opportunity to empower people to take control of their own health and reduce the impact the disease has on their daily life, in turn improving their quality of care and saving time and money for the NHS.”

From early 2023, the team will explore the use of novel sensors to monitor health at home and test the feasibility of home monitoring for patients with NCFB.

The programme, co-developed by people with direct experience of CF and NCFB, will enrol up to 500 adults with the conditions.

LifeArc will offer support in developing the technology to a commercial standard so it can be made available to patients worldwide.

Patient Sammie Read with a lung function test
Patient Sammie Read with a lung function test

Dr Catherine Kettleborough, who leads the LifeArc Chronic Respiratory Infection Translational Challenge, said: “LifeArc drives scientific innovation so patients can benefit from medical breakthroughs sooner. In November, we will launch the LifeArc Chronic Respiratory Infection Translational Challenge to help develop new tests and treatments for people living with bronchiectasis and cystic fibrosis.

“Our goal is to help people with BE (bronchiectasis) and CF live longer with improved quality of life by breaking the vicious cycle of infection, inflammation and permanent damage.

“This new technology has the potential to transform how people living with chronic lung conditions like BE and CF monitor and manage their condition. By detecting infections before symptoms appear, this technology could enable patients to start treatment earlier before they become seriously unwell, avoiding unnecessary hospital admissions and massive disruption to their lives.”

Sammie Read, 42, from Stowmarket, Suffolk, who took part in the earlier research, said: “Self-monitoring my health through Project Breathe has helped me pick up signs of exacerbations more quickly, meaning problems have been intercepted earlier.

“This has given me a better quality of life as I do not need to be admitted as an inpatient for intravenous antibiotics as often.”

CF patient Steve Churchill uses a thermometer
CF patient Steve Churchill uses a thermometer

Fellow CF patient Steve Churchill, 44 from Hertfordshire, has been monitoring his health from home using technology since November 2019.

“It was perfect timing for me with the Covid-19 pandemic arriving a few months later when I needed to shield. I have been able to keep an eye on my health more closely myself, a benefit that was particularly useful during the pandemic,” he said.

“There have been a few times when I have started oral antibiotics earlier than I would have done otherwise, which may have prevented some hospital stays because I’ve been able to spot a possible problem early.”

A further arm of the trial will probe whether novel, small wearable devices that continuously monitor the health of people with CF can help.

“It would be great to have the recording done passively,” added Steve. “Managing my CF takes a long time - four hours a day when I am well and far longer when I am ill. Anything that can reduce the burden of my health regime would be very welcome.”

Sammie added: “Having the data picked up more easily or automatically without having to record it myself would be even easier. It would save more time, allowing me to continue living my life without having to upload data daily.”

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