COVID-19 secure research platform expansion to support research into other major diseases

NHS England has announced the expansion of the secure research platform OpenSAFELY, originally developed in collaboration with the Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science at the University of Oxford in order to help researchers understand more about patient vulnerability to COVID-19 along with vaccine and treatment effectiveness, with the aim of helping to “drive life-saving advances for other major diseases”.

Through the platform, researchers write the code for analysis without directly accessing patient data. Their queries are submitted for automatic analysis against patient records within a secure setting.

The expansion will see scientists able to securely analyse data from GP systems to search for treatments for conditions including cancer, diabetes, and asthma. It is hoped that this data will assist researchers in further understanding medicines, treatments and patient outcomes with the potential to support better clinical practice.

With plans for OpenSAFELY to be accessible to new research applicants from 2024, NHSE says that this and similar platforms will “allow the health and care system to meet its commitments in the Data Strategy to develop products with the involvement of the public”.

The platform has enabled over 150 research projects from 22 organisations so far.

Victoria Atkins, health and social care secretary, said: “Our NHS is at the forefront of life-saving medical research, and services like this will help drive future breakthroughs that deliver the best outcomes for patients. It played a vital role during the pandemic, helping us to identify which people were most at risk of the virus and determine the effectiveness of vaccines. I am determined that we now build on this progress. By using patient data while protecting their privacy, we will be able to support people with a range of conditions including cancer, diabetes and asthma – encouraging innovation and life-saving research.”

Earlier this month, we looked at research published in The Lancet Digital Health on data infrastructure transformation, with authors producing a website intended to “promote transparency and showcase NHS data assets” following a mapping exercise involving “all electronic patient data flows across England, from providers to more than 460 subsequent academic, commercial and public data consumers”.

Also on NHS data, the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust has announced its role as one of the eight early adopter sites of the NHS’s new National Competency Framework (NCF) for the recruitment and development of data professionals.