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Wound Healing Research Unit

At the Wound Healing Research Unit (WHRU), putting patients first is more than just a mission statement.

Professor Tricia Price

"Everything’s got to be focussed on ‘what’s the benefit for patients?’" says the Unit’s director, Professor Tricia Price.

Those patients can range from a World War Two veteran whose wounds have never healed to someone with leg ulcers. Many patients referred to the Unit are diabetes sufferers who have developed chronic wounds on their feet.

Wounds are a significant financial burden to the NHS, with estimates of the cost of managing wounds ranging from £180M to nearly £2BN a year. The WHRU, part of the School of Medicine is at the forefront of wound healing research and education, reducing the recovery time and discomfort of patients and freeing up valuable bed space in our hospitals. This year the Unit celebrates 15 years of pioneering clinical work as well as world leading education and research.

"There’s a loss of sensation called neuropathy. So you can end up with a nail in your foot, or your shoes are too tight, because you can’t feel it," says Professor Price.

Dealing with diabetics’ foot problems soaks up more hospital resources than any other form of treatment for the disease. Which is where the Unit’s researchers come in — working on everything from wound biology to cost-effectiveness of new products.

"One of the key things is trying to ensure that the products that come online actually meet clinical need.

"It is often a surprise to me how many product developers have never seen a patient with a chronic wound."

The Unit has close links with industry, earning more than £1m a year by working with commercial partners. With a wide-range of collaborations, the Unit undertakes clinical trials of wound materials and devices and investigates the many facets of wound healing (including physiological, biomechanical, biological, health outcomes and health service delivery) so leading to the development of novel therapies and wound diagnostic technologies.

Big blue-chip companies such as  Smith & Nephew, Johnson & Johnson and KCI come to Cardiff time after time when they want to test out new ideas.

The unit’s reputation goes before it.

"We have a reputation for recruiting and completing on time. We have a reputation for not promising things that we can’t do. We have a reputation for being reliable," continued Professor Price.

Model on cushion

"Imagine an inflatable mattress or cushion which patients can use to alleviate the discomfort of leg ulcers or sores. The Unit took the idea to a Welsh company, Frontier Therapeutics. Together, they developed The Repose, an award-winning product now selling like hot cakes.

"It works!" says Professor Price. "It’s polyurethane clear plastic and you inflate it.

"In a study in Eastbourne, because patients could take the mattress home with them they didn’t have to wait to be released back into the community. It solved bed-blocking over winter.  "It’s relatively low-cost and by introducing it here we’ve saved the National Health Service (NHS) a heck of a lot of money."

When a company knocks on the Unit’s door with a new and untested product, there are always a few simple questions to answer: Does the product work? What’s the impact on the patient? Is it cost-effective?" It’s trying to make sure that what industry’s research agenda does is meet a real problem rather than ‘Ooh, we’ve got a new dressing with round corners rather than square ones.’"

Patient in bed

It’s a rigorous approach which has won a seal of approval from one of the world’s most-respected organisations in the research field, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Unit also attracts an international group of students to its MSc in Wound Healing Tissue Repair. The course is another world first for a Unit which was itself unique when it was established by Professor Keith Harding in 1991.

Although celebrating fifteen years this year, the Unit isn’t sitting on its laurels. So what’s next? The Unit is in the very early stages of developing a ‘smart dressing’.

"At the moment if you take a swab from the surface of a wound to see if it’s infected you get that back ten days later. In the meantime you’ve got to treat the wound."

A ‘smart dressing’ will be able to tell the clinician if it needs to be changed, or if there’s infection present in the wound. It would provide on-the-spot, immediate information.

The research, led by Professor David Thomas of the Dental School, has won the backing of the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

"All wounds have bacteria in them, so it’s a case of finding the critical number, or the critical combination."

The smart dressing might sound like something from a science-fiction battlefield, but it’s something that might eventually find a place in everyone’s medicine cabinet.

The dressing might indicate to an elderly patient if there’s an infection, or if the dressing needs to be changed, saving unnecessary trips to the hospital.

Saving time and money, helping patients to heal is business as usual for the Wound Healing Research Unit as it embarks on its next 15 years.

Wound Healing Research Unit | Yr Uned Ymchwil Gwella Clwyfau