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New research into cardiovascular (heart and circulatory) disease from Ulster University could reduce hospital waiting times by 100,000 hours per year, saving more than 1,100 lives annually.

This research comes from the EU INTERREG VA-funded, cross-border centre of research excellence within the field of cardiovascular medicine, Eastern Corridor Medical Engineering (ECME), which launched in 2017 at Ulster University.

It is projected that ECME will save NI’s health service almost £3m while generating more than £25m for the wider NI economy.

Over the past five years, ECME has facilitated the collaboration of researchers from academia and industry, with partners in the health and social care system, to improve clinical outcomes and patient experience.

The partnership has delivered a total of 35 PhD and post doctorate researchers, the equivalent of 100 years’ worth of research, building a skilled talent pipeline for future research and innovation in healthcare. Placed second in the UK for postgraduate researcher satisfaction in the 2021 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, the university continues to support PhD opportunities across diverse sectors.

ECME’s research has been transformative for cardiac care in the region through developing:

  1. New models of care including point-of-care diagnostics and ambient assisted living;
  2. Smart wearable technologies such as a small wearable patch that can detect irregular heartbeats;
  3. Improved patient monitoring systems through big data.

Cardiovascular (heart and circulatory) disease causes more than a quarter (26%) of all deaths in the UK; that’s nearly 160,000 deaths each year – an average of 435 people each day or one death every three minutes, and in the Republic of Ireland this figure is slightly higher at around 30%.

ECME is a cross border partnership between Ulster University, Southern Health and Social Care Trust Cardiac Research Unit, Dundalk Institute of Technology, Dublin City University, University College Dublin and the University of Highlands and Islands.

The centre received €8.2m funding from the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). Match-funding was also supplied by the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, in Ireland.

Ulster University’s research in medical engineering is one of many diverse research disciplines that informs teaching while addressing the challenges of our times. The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted what a force for good academic research can be in our society, and the ECME partnership has played a significant role in COVID-19 related research. This includes modelling the transmission of the disease, determining why some individuals are more at risk than others, and improving the effectiveness of home-based diagnostic tests.

Congratulating the project partners on delivery of a successful project, Department for the Economy Minister, Gordon Lyons, said:

The Centre’s focus on creating a cross-border centre of research excellence within the field of cardiovascular medicine, particularly focused on medical grade wearables and associated remote monitoring systems, has identified new technologies that will contribute to both reducing healthcare costs and the creation of employment opportunities across the vital life and health sciences sector.

“Partnership and collaboration is a central theme of Interreg projects and this project is no exception. The combination of existing health care providers working collaboratively with companies with transferable skills in fields such as mobile devices, analytics and advanced materials added an important additional dimension.

“The foundations built through this project support our vision for the decade of innovation. The ultimate success of the ECME project was built upon its collaborative approach, pooling knowledge and expertise alongside a combination of talent from the public and private sectors, academia and central government. Such partnerships represent a key strategic pathway to strengthening the targeted sector, demonstrating a culture of innovation that benefits everyone across our society, vital to my vision for a ‘10X economy’.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar TD, said:

Congratulations to all involved in bringing this incredible project to fruition. Heart disease is a leading cause of death globally and any steps we can take to improve patient outcomes and their experience during treatment will reduce the suffering of so many. I’m proud to have supported this important work through my Department. It demonstrates the value of working together collaboratively and sharing expertise.

Commenting on what ECME has achieved, Professor Jim McLaughlin Head of the School of Engineering at Ulster University said:

ECME is creating impactful outcomes for both patients and clinicians by reducing waiting times by up to 100,000 hours a year. This has been achieved through ECME’s research identifying better models of heart disease care, developing new medical grade wearables, as well as remote monitoring systems. The partnership has been a powerful demonstration of the role of medical engineering in advancing improvements in healthcare, enhancing diagnostics, treatment and rehabilitation.

Over recent years we have brought our engineering research even closer to industry. This sectoral collaboration marks the real world difference that our research makes, and is the foundation of our role in the £43m Belfast Region City Deal Centre for Digital Healthcare Technology which is currently under development and leads on from ECME and other affiliated research and innovation centres.

Outlining the importance of the project, Gina McIntyre, Chief Executive of the SEUPB said:

The EU INTERREG VA Programme has been specifically designed to develop the cross-border Research & Innovation capacity of the region and supports many different projects which have real growth potential within the Health & Life Sciences sector. The ECME project is a fantastic example of this as it has created a unique cross-border centre of research excellence which has made significant leaps forward in wearable technologies that have the potential to radically transform cardiac care.

These advances will not only take pressure off our overstretched health services but give patients more independence and autonomy over their own treatment and care. I would like to congratulate each and every partner involved in the delivery of this extremely worthwhile project for their dedication, creativity and determination over the past five years.

This progressive research comes as Ulster University has been ranked in the top 10% of UK universities for outstanding (4*) or very considerable (3*) research impact in the latest Research Excellent Framework, a UK-wide assessment of university research, delivering a positive and long-term impact on societies and economies globally. Engineering at Ulster University is among a group of universities ranked joint first in the UK for having attained 100% 4*/3* rating in the quality of the impact from its research.

For more information on the project, visit the ECME webpage

For more on Ulster University’s Research Excellent Framework results for engineering, visit: 12. Engineering - REF 2021 (