£13m disease early warning system for England to open at University of Bath

A new £13 million Centre of Excellence in water-based health monitoring is set to be established at the University of Bath following a major funding award.

The Centre of Excellence in Water-Based Early-Warning Systems for Health Protection, WBE@Bath, will develop a public health surveillance system to detect outbreaks of diseases by testing water systems for traces of pathogens or other biomarkers at a community level.

This could help prevent future pandemics from spreading by detecting them early, and will provide better understanding of chronic, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

An £8.4 million investment in the Centre was announced by Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation. The full cost of the project will total £13 million including contributions from the University of Bath and partners.

Cutting-edge facilities will build talent pool

As well as an ‘Urban Living Lab’, the Centre will host state-of-the-art analytical capabilities including a digital water-sensing platform, training base and testing infrastructure designed to provide low-cost and real-time community-wide profiling of population health and the environment.

Five prize fellow positions and a doctoral training partnership will also be created through the project, increasing the skills and expertise base while diversifying talent.

Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, a co-director of Bath’s Water Innovation Research Centre and a member of the University’s Institute for Sustainability, will lead the Centre. She said:

“We’re delighted to have received this funding to expand the work of WBE@Bath, as well as our capability to train and bring new talent into the sector.

“COVID-19 demonstrated how the successful management of disease outbreaks is critically dependent on real-time, cost-effective and comprehensive surveillance systems enabling testing of whole communities, irrespective of location.

“Our previous research has shown the transformative potential of using wastewater-based epidemiology to carry out this testing in locations such as water recycling centres. These techniques could give us a crucial tool in detecting future epidemics before they happen.

“We will build a unique, full scale urban living lab that will enable testing of new approaches and tools aimed at better understanding of how diseases spread, the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals and how to develop more effective interventions and management strategies.”

Centre to be designed with partners

The Centre will be designed with input from Bath’s longstanding partners including Wessex Water, the UK Health Security Agency, Arup, the Environment Agency, The London Data Company, AWS, Waters and The Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Trust and Bath & North-East Somerset Council. The project’s partner universities are Newcastle, Cardiff, Exeter, Glasgow, Stellenbosch (South Africa) and Lagos (Nigeria), and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

The funding is part of a £156 million investment by Research England’s Expanding Excellence in England (E3) Fund, which will support 18 universities across England to expand their small, but outstanding research units.

Dr Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England, said:

“Our investment will also help to reinforce the contribution of HEPs to their region through strategic local partnerships, focusing on sharing resources and infrastructure and generating local impact, backed by robust institutional leadership.

“We’re excited to see how these units develop over the next five years.”

A new Centre of Doctoral Training designed to improve the health of the UK’s rivers and lakes, also to be led by Prof Kasprzyk-Hordern, was announced. The two investments will strengthen Bath’s capacity in world-leading research, training and cutting-edge infrastructure.

The Centre of Excellence will draw on the expertise of staff from Bath’s Departments of Chemical Engineering, Electronic & Electrical Engineering, Architecture & Civil Engineering, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences and Psychology.

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