Rob Storey portrait

Research in focus

Our researchers are making life-changing discoveries and solving problems that have a global impact. From developing treatments for heart attack patients to finding sustainable solutions for food growth, we’re finding new and innovative ways to improve our world.

A life-saving drug for heart attack patients

Researchers and clinicians from Sheffield were instrumental in the development of ticagrelor, a drug that reduces the risk of blood clots in heart attack patients. It has saved the lives of thousands of people around the world since its discovery over 20 years ago.

Ticagrelor improves on clopidogrel, previously the standard treatment for heart attack patients. Rob Storey, Professor of Cardiology at the University and Honorary Consultant in Cardiology at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, was keenly aware of clopidogrel’s shortcomings and the need for something better.

Pharmaceutical company Astra (later AstraZeneca) were working on a new intravenous anti-clotting therapy known as cangrelor. Professor Storey became the first researcher outside Astra with access to this drug, which showed a more consistent and reliable response in different blood samples – potentially a major step forward from clopidogrel. He was also the first doctor to administer cangrelor to a patient, in the late 1990s.

He then worked with Astra on the development of an oral alternative to cangrelor, namely ticagrelor, which can be prescribed for long-term treatment. He was adviser to a complex study involving over 18,000 heart attack patients in 43 different countries.

Results showed that ticagrelor reduced mortality rates in patients from five to four per cent – preventing one in five deaths.”

The study opened the way for ticagrelor to be approved in 2011 by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a cost-effective treatment for heart attack patients. South Yorkshire was one of the first areas in the world to adopt the drug, and it is now the main anti-clotting treatment for heart attack across the UK and many other countries. Professor Storey was subsequently involved in another international study in over 21,000 patients, which showed that tricagelor treatment over many years can further reduce the risk of recurrent heart attack.

Research continues at Sheffield. Dr Wael Sumaya is focused on reducing mortality rates among the 20 per cent of patients who still don’t respond to post-heart attack treatment. Dr William Parker is looking at whether a lower dose of aspirin may be more effective for long-term treatment when combined with tricagelor.

Improving care for nerve injuries

Nerve damageSheffield is an internationally renowned specialist centre for the clinical management of patients with trigeminal nerve injuries. Damage can occur during wisdom tooth removal, the placement of dental implants, corrective jaw surgery or because of facial fractures. A proportion of patients are left with complete numbness or altered sensation of the affected region; this may also be accompanied by severe pain. Historically, little was offered to these patients by standard clinical practice, in terms of either a clear prognosis or possible surgical intervention to improve the level of recovery.

A team at the University has now developed reliable and successful methods for trigeminal nerve repair and published protocols for its clinical management. Led by Simon Atkins (BDS Dentistry 1999, PhD Dentistry 2008), Senior Clinical Lecturer/Consultant Oral Surgeon, they have undertaken extensive research in the field; their techniques include direct surgical repair and the use of grafts to enable regeneration of nerve fibres.

They also actively promote procedures that avoid nerve damage in the first place, through the dissemination of information at local, national, international and specialist meetings and online training courses. Embedding the management of trigeminal nerve injuries within undergraduate and postgraduate dental curricula is an ongoing part of their work.

The team receives around 120 referrals a year from throughout the UK and further afield, and is the only specialist centre for trigeminal nerve repair. The quantitative assessment of the outcome of nerve repair has revealed that there is a highly significant improvement in the majority of cases, and patients consider the surgery worthwhile. The team are currently researching the mechanisms underlying the development of pain and the effects of scarring to further enhance nerve repair outcomes. Further research in conjunction with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering aims to further improve nerve repair by utilising novel synthetic conduits.

Growing crops in the most extreme conditions

Greenhouse illustration

The University’s expertise in plant and soil science is triggering innovative ideas about how agriculture can feed the world’s growing population in an environmentally sustainable way. The design of new systems for growing food in dry deserts and other areas of the world that are normally hostile to plants has led to the development of a new type of greenhouse, which cools rather than warms and deals with issues such as a lack of water and soil degradation.

(left-right) Professor Tony Ryan, Professor Duncan Cameron and HE Hamish Cowell, British Ambassador to Oman, at the launch of the greenhouse.

A collaboration with Sohar University in Oman, this pioneering scheme uses solar thermal energy to desalinate seawater for irrigation and an artificial growth medium supplied with sufficient nutrients along with atmospheric CO2 enrichment to yield valuable crops. Duncan Cameron (BSc Animal and Plant Biology 2001), Professor of Plant and Soil Biology, is one of the project leaders and said, “Geographically, Oman is a difficult country. It reaches highs of 50 degrees in the summer with 65 per cent humidity – this leads to food prices quadrupling. The greenhouse is being used as a research facility on the Sohar campus; the design also has the capacity to be dropped as a package anywhere and be made bespoke. We hope to work with other communities living in some of the world’s harshest climates to develop more greenhouses.”

A new way forward for radioactive waste management

Radiation symbolA group of over 40 academics and researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering are focused on developing strategy, materials, processes and policy to support the safe, timely and efficient clean-up of the UK radioactive waste legacy. A key aspect of their work is the design, manufacture and performance assessment of glass and ceramic materials for the immobilisation of plutonium residues, legacy intermediate-level wastes and high-level wastes from reprocessing operations.

Led by Neil Hyatt, Royal Academy of Engineering and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority Research Chair in Radioactive Waste Management, the team works closely with industrial organisations, including Sellafield Ltd, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the National Nuclear Laboratory, to address real-world challenges of radioactive waste management.

“The Strategy and Technical Directorate at Sellafield Ltd first saw the quality of our work when we ran a project with Magnox, the nuclear decommissioning site licence company, looking at possible vitrification technology – the transformation of a substance into glass,” Professor Hyatt explained. The group was then commissioned to develop a proof of concept for the novel process, which involves the mixing of plutonium-contaminated waste with blast furnace slag and turning it into a glass-based form. This reduces its volume by between 50 and 95 per cent and locks in the radioactive plutonium, creating a stable end product.

The research undertaken at the University made an essential contribution to the decision to change the UK’s waste management strategy to adopt thermal treatment technologies for some radioactive wastes. The future expectation is for a £240 million investment to construct a thermal treatment plant for plutonium-contaminated waste at Sellafield.

Professor Hyatt said, “It has been a very fruitful partnership. We understand the needs to harness science and engineering to address real-world challenges and the team at Sellafield Ltd understands the need to harness fundamental science in order to solve technical problems. This gives us very similar outlooks from different ends of the science spectrum; we are interested ultimately in basic science, and they want to achieve translation.”

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