Research Excellence Framework 2021 research areas

Staff submitted as part of our Faculty’s REF2021 return are aligned to 18 research themes, which cross Institute boundaries and facilitate interdisciplinary research.

Cancer medicine

External review of the Faculty’s cancer strategy supported a refocus of our research into areas of clear strength and prompted the establishment of the new Liverpool Cancer Research Institute and the Liverpool Head and Neck Centre. Together with the Liverpool Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre this has enabled us to consolidate our research activity around specific areas of cancer research where Liverpool has an established international profile: lung cancer screening and early detection, head and neck and pancreatic cancer, uveal melanoma, therapeutic safety and precision medicine, while also addressing the regional demands of cancer burden. Two new expanding areas of cancer research include immunotherapy and the mitigation of adverse cardiovascular side effects of chemotherapy, led by a partnership between the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science, the Cardiovascular Research Centre and the Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital NHS Foundation trust.

Infection and global health

Researchers within the infection and global health theme are working to improve our understanding of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Through the Centre of Excellence in Infectious Diseases Research, the Centre for Global Vaccine Research, and the Centre of Excellence in Long-acting Therapeutics, our researchers engage with industry partners to deliver the next generation of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines with a major and increasing focus on emerging infections and antimicrobial resistance. Through the University of Liverpool-led national Health Protection Research Units in Emerging Infections and Zoonoses and Gastrointestinal Infections, researchers work with Public Health England to protect the UK population from established and emerging infection threats to health. Our reach is global, addressing internationally important infections including brain, respiratory, and gastrointestinal infections, and maternal and neonatal sepsis, through our multiple overseas programmes including those in Malawi, Uganda, India and Brazil.

Life course and chronic diseases

Researchers contributing to the theme of life course and chronic disease have a diverse focus which ranges from understanding early life events, including preterm birth (benefitting from our close partnerships with Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and the Liverpool Women’s Hospital), through to mechanisms of ageing and how these affect chronic diseases. Research in this area is comprehensive and includes musculoskeletal ageing, cardiovascular medicine, and eye and vision studies. Research is undertaken through both laboratory-based discovery bioscience projects through to clinical translational and bedside studies. The aim is to understand risk factors for chronic age-related disorders and to develop new preventative and therapeutic interventions that improve lifetime health and reduce costs to the NHS and other healthcare systems. The MRC-Arthritis Research UK Centre for Integrated Research into Musculoskeletal Ageing represents an exemplar of Liverpool leadership to co-ordinate multidisciplinary and multi-centre progress in this area.

Pharmacology, therapeutics and multi-omics

The University has a long-established international reputation in the areas of clinical pharmacology, drug safety and personalised medicine, being awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for work towards improving the safety and effectiveness of medicines in 2017. This is a major focus of our research activity with researchers providing a range of molecular, computational, and clinical expertise. Expanding on the foundations developed through the MRC Centre for Drug Safety Science, this cross-cutting theme provides valuable expertise and infrastructure to facilitate effective translational research, including the implementation of personalised medicine, infection pharmacology, neuropharmacology, the avoidance/mitigation of therapeutic adverse drug effects, and novel nano therapeutics. This area is complemented by internationally leading expertise from colleagues working in health data science and biostatistics and by our extensive ‘multi-omic’ technologies, excellent clinical trials capabilities and well-developed biobanking and translational resources.

Health inequalities

Researchers within the theme of health inequalities are working to improve health and reduce health inequalities locally, nationally, and globally through the study of the determinants of health and wellbeing and the evaluation of the policies that impact on them. Research in undertaken in the areas of medical and health sciences, epidemiology, economics, sociology, bioethics, anthropology, psychology, health data science, community development, policy analysis, statistics, geography, civic design, and history providing an interdisciplinary critical mass delivering research across four key research themes: Policy Research on the Social Determinants of Health Inequalities; Energy, Air Pollution and Global Health (which led to the establishment of the CLEAN-AIR (Africa) NIHR Global Health Research Group); Non-Communicable Disease Prevention and Food Policy; and Health Systems Analysis.

Primary care and wellbeing

Researchers within the theme of primary care and wellbeing work to produce knowledge of theoretical, practical and policy significance for improving primary care and wellbeing of populations, with a focus on depression, long term conditions, severe mental illness, palliative care and marginalised communities. Based on studies of the structural, organisational, and psychosocial factors that shape people’s access to services, their care needs, treatment decisions and outcomes, researchers develop and evaluate interventions, from community level initiatives, qualitative enquiries, through to policy developments. Their research is diverse and includes projects looking at strategies for reducing long term antidepressant use in primary care; how peer mentors can provide support and reduce distress for patients with advanced cancer; the development of an enhanced community-based rehabilitation programme following hip fracture; as well as the formation of the Applied Research Collaboration North West Coast which brings together a network of 61 health and social care partners, and a well-established public adviser forum, to address disparities in the health of the region.

Trials and methodology

Researchers within the trials and methodology theme are working to improve population health by informing practice and policy through the design and delivery of world class clinical trials, high quality epidemiological research, and the synthesis of evidence in areas of strategic importance, supported by the development and advancement of underlying methodologies. Priorities are to improve evidence-based medicine and policy through best use of methods, and consequently to reduce waste in healthcare research. A key achievement has been the integration of our two nationally and internationally renowned Clinical Trials Units to form the Liverpool Clinical Trials Centre, supported by the formation of the Faculty’s clinical directorate and the establishment of Liverpool Health Partners to bring together clinical and scientific expertise and streamline the research and development process to maximise efficiency. Our work has achieved several key highlights including a portfolio of infection trials- CATCH, PREVAIL, BASICS, SYCAMORE, and the EcLiPSE trial. The group’s international reputation and expertise in trials methodology research is evidenced by the establishment of the MRC-NIHR Trials Methodology Research Partnership which builds on the achievements of the MRC North West Hub for Trials Methodology Research.

Appetite, obesity and addiction

Researchers within the appetite, obesity and addiction theme are working to understand the psychobiological and environmental drivers of eating and addictive behaviour and working to develop interventions and public health policy initiatives to address health inequality in obesity, drug, and alcohol addiction. Sub themes include eating behaviour, behaviour change, environment and child health, psychiatric epidemiology, and psychopharmacology. Across the theme, researchers are engaged in major multicentre trials of appetite control in weight management (e.g., EU H2020 SWEET project and industry-funded £5M SWITCH trial), as well as the N8-Agrifood programme and Liverpool Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Food Systems, a multidisciplinary cross-Faculty initiative using food system science to improve health and the environment. Working with partners such as Obesity Health Alliance, Cancer Research UK, and the UK Government, key achievements have included the development of novel digital behaviour change interventions for alcohol use, leading evidence-based policy change at a national level on the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, and high impact epidemiological studies evidencing the complex links between trauma and mental health with alcohol, substance use, and obesity.

Perception, cognition and language

Researchers within the theme of perception, cognition and language are studying the neuropsychological bases of human sensory, perceptual, and cognitive systems, as well as language acquisition and development in typical and atypical populations. Major infrastructure has been invested in to support brain imaging, high density EEG, and virtual reality technology to support our research strategy goals, as well as major multi centre projects (e.g. Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD) – which looks at language acquisition in children, and aims to develop and evaluate effective interventions in early years education and healthcare). Key achievements include: establishment of key components of core vision assessments for stroke patients; discovery of previously unknown links between statistical learning, lexical processing efficiency and word learning in infants and toddlers; and high impact studies revealing novel insights into morphological and grammatical development.

Forensic, investigative and conflict

Researchers within the theme of forensic, investigative and conflict, are a small interdisciplinary group dedicated to impact generating projects focussing on decision making and responses to critical and major incidents, including sexual and violent crime, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. Working with colleagues across the University, including from the Institute for Risk and Uncertainty, this group connects a range of disciplines across engineering, psychology, and the humanities. Their diverse portfolio includes: a project developing interventions to prevent violence and sexual reoffending; development of risk management tools for law enforcement agencies; and the development of tools for decision making, communication and rapport-based interrogation. Researchers work with a diverse range of partners to embed their research in national practice, including the National Crime Agency, Home Office, College of Policing, FBI, CIA, Joint Forces Intelligence Group, and Public Health England.

Mental health

Researchers within the mental health theme aim to increase our understanding of mental health issues at all life stages, both locally and internationally. Their research includes perinatal, child and adolescent mental health, mental health in a societal and environmental context, genomic/environmental determinants of mental health, and global mental health interventions in low- and middle-income countries and humanitarian contexts. The research has been supported by the creation of a new Faculty department- Primary Care and Mental Health- to heighten visibility and encourage interdisciplinary work and bolstered by a collaborative interface with the NHS facilitated by Liverpool Health Partners and the North West Coast Mental Health Research Network. Key projects have included: discovery of key sex differentiated pathways to specific mental health outcomes in childhood; a major randomised control trial showing that self‐help strategies in antenatal provision without professional support are insufficient and should not be routinely introduced; and novel intervention trials for depression and anxiety in women in post-conflict settings.

Basic and clinical neuroscience

Research within the theme of basic and clinical neuroscience includes the study of molecular, cellular, and genomic bases of central nervous system function, and research into neurodegeneration, movement disorders, epilepsy, pain, neuroinflammation and brain infection. A strong interdisciplinary focus draws on staff expertise across the Faculty including neuropharmacology and the Epilepsy Research Group, Liverpool Brain Infections Group and access to multi-disciplinary expertise via the Centre of Excellence in Infectious Diseases Research (CEIDR) and the Walton Pain Research Institute. Key research projects have included: identification of gene targets and pathways mediating neurodegeneration in Parkinson's disease and motor neuron disease; high impact work on neurological complications of brain infection (e.g., Japanese Encephalitis and SARS-CoV-2); and discovery of novel forms of therapeutic intervention for neurodegenerative illness.

Infectious diseases of livestock

Researchers within the theme of infectious diseases of livestock are working to reduce disease burden in livestock in both the UK and beyond. Our extensive portfolio on the transmission, diagnosis and control of widespread disease of livestock extends to understanding basic biological principles underlying disease processes as well as mechanisms behind the underlying host immune response. Key outcomes of research include: improved control of parasites by optimising intervention strategies and experimental vaccines; unravelling the causes of foot disease in sheep and cattle and identifying risk factors, genetics and breeding strategies to reduce its impact; regulation of host immune cells during infection and defining gut function through 3-dimensional gut models; and studying disease circulation within rodent communities and to humans (including working to control rat borne leptospirosis in Brazilian slum settings).

Animal welfare and productivity

Researchers within the theme of animal welfare and productivity are focussed on improving animal health, increasing farm productivity, and studying the impact of companion animals on human health and wellbeing. Research in this area is diverse and interdisciplinary and seeks to tackle animal health issues such as obesity, metabolic syndromes and welfare. Examples of work carried out within this theme include: developments in diagnosis and treatment of obesity-related disorders in companion animals (including the establishment of an "Obesity Clinic" for dogs and cats at the University's Small Animal Teaching Hospital); research on human interaction with companion animals (including dog bite prevention, childhood development and pet ownership, and dog walking and physical activity); behavioural studies to improve handling methods used for laboratory mice to increase animal welfare, improve research data reliability and increase safety of personnel; and creation of SAVSNET, a system developed to improve companion animal disease surveillance at local, regional and national levels.

Emerging diseases and AMR

Researchers within the theme of emerging diseases and AMR are working to better understand infectious disease processes, mitigate their impact, and establish the basis and evolutionary dynamics of antimicrobial and pesticide resistance. Emerging infections and resistance in circulating pathogens and parasites present challenges to livestock and plant health, leading to issues in economic growth, sustainability and food security. Our research extends internationally, primarily in Africa and Asia with the launch of the One Health Regional Network for the Horn of Africa (HORN), a multidisciplinary partnership of organisations that research the link between people’s health and wealth, and that of livestock and the environment. Our researchers are also at the cutting edge of COVID-19 research, including leading a rapid and effective response to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, particularly in the analysis of clinical samples, sequencing the virus as part of contact tracing strategies, and development and evaluation of animal models for COVID-19 to study the relationship of the disease to humans.

Musculoskeletal

The research of staff within the theme of musculoskeletal spans from the basic bioscience of gait and movement, to improving function through the life course by molecular and translational studies. We seek to understand the mechanisms that lead to risks of musculoskeletal disease through the life course with a particular emphasis on ageing. Our research explores biological mechanisms, functions and pathways, with applications in the treatment of disorders and the maintenance of wellbeing during the natural changes that accompany ageing, integrating novel materials and devices to improve physical health and wellbeing in farm and companion animal settings. Examples of ongoing projects include: the exploration of the ageing process across the musculoskeletal system with an emphasis on osteoarthritis and tendon/ligament disorders; investigating cellular and novel biomaterial approaches to improve orthopaedic repair; and modelling fish swimming behaviour to fully understand how muscles and bones work together to provide a flexible neck in humans and animals.

Evolution, ecology and behaviour

Our research in evolution, ecology and behaviour seeks to establish the basis for understanding resilience to environmental change, and drive technologies in modifying natural populations for human benefit. Researchers in this group explore evolutionary and ecological responses to change and conservation at habitat and landscape levels. Examples of ongoing projects include: establishing the role of landscape fragmentation in determining the outcome of biodiversity conservation, leading to the delivery of packages for community use for land planning; and advancing our understanding of evolutionary responses in recent time, including determining the genetic basis of melanism in peppered moths, the response of insects to parasites, the impact of climate change on evolution in grassland, and the spread of selfish genetic elements through natural populations.

Functional and comparative ‘omics

Research by staff within the theme of functional and comparative ‘omics underpins many other areas of research within the Faculty by supporting our extensive ‘omics technologies that generate our large datasets, and by developing mathematical and computational models to exploit these data. Additionally, researchers within this research group also have expertise in underpinning plant science and crop improvement. Our researchers develop computational platforms to understand complex data at DNA, transcriptome, proteome and metabolome levels and aim to enable ‘omics data sharing through development of standards and platforms. Examples of projects include: using multi-omic data and computational biology approaches to identify signals of pollution stress in aquatic environments; development of prebiotics to improve piglet health and growth outcomes; and leading virus sequencing through the Centre for Genomic Research.

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