PHE science is on the move

Leila Luheshi

24 September 2015

The recent Ebola epidemic has brought into sharp focus the need for national and international health systems to keep in sight the fact that, despite the burgeoning threat posed by non-communicable diseases, infections remain a significant cause of morbidity and mortality, even in developed nations such as the UK.

The surveillance, prevention and control of infectious disease remains one of the key duties of Public Health England (PHE), and the body charged with guarding the good health of our population has been making significant moves in the last few weeks to maintain and improve on its enviable reputation as a leader in this field.

PHE Harlow: A new hub for pathogen genomics?

The chancellor has announced that the long anticipated move of the PHE microbiology research laboratories at Porton Down to the former GSK laboratories in Harlow as part of the new PHE ‘science hub’. PHE Porton is responsible for delivering world leading research into rare, dangerous and imported pathogens and has been a key contributor to the wider PHE response to the Ebola epidemic. Notably, however, the decision on whether to relocate the vast majority of PHE’s central microbiology and epidemiological services and research infrastructure, currently located in Colindale, has been deferred until the current spending review is complete.

PHE microbiologists, epidemiologists and informaticians based at Colindale are widely expected to play a leading role in the construction of a national data infrastructure and much of the knowledge, expertise and technical methods which will underpin the delivery of genomics informed infectious disease management to our health system.  While it will take more than corralling all of these experts into a single location to accelerate the pace with which major structural adaptations required to operate microbiology services in the genomic era are being delivered, their co-location in modern, fit-for-purpose laboratories might begin to reduce some of the internal barriers to co-operation and coordination that have previously existed. 

A public health science innovation hub?

If appropriately developed this new science hub could also provide excellent opportunities both to strengthen existing interactions between PHE and the academic and industrial research communities, and accelerate the pace with which biomedical innovations such as whole genome sequencing of pathogens are implemented into frontline services. 

If we are being optimistic, we might hope that it will also drive the wider appreciation and understanding of the great contribution that biomedical science can make to improving population health beyond the obvious applications to communicable diseases. However, as noted recently by our Director , the absence of a clear strategy for developing and evaluating the potential of genomics (currently the principal technology through which more precise healthcare is being developed) as a public health protection and improvement tool within the PHE, suggests that they still have a long way to go.