Oxford University's Stroke Prevention Research Unit has been awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher Education, the highest form of national recognition that UK higher education institutions can achieve.
This is the ninth time that the University has been awarded the Prize, more than any other university.
The Stroke Prevention Research Unit was founded in 2000 by Professor Peter Rothwell to improve prevention of stroke and other chronic diseases in older people. It now comprises over 30 staff, is linked to a world-leading imaging facility, and runs several unique cohort studies in collaboration with 100 GPs in Oxfordshire. In 2013, the Unit evolved into the Centre for Prevention of Stroke and Dementia.
The Prize, announced last night at St James's Palace, London, recognises the Unit's outstanding work in preventive medicine. In little over a decade, the Unit has revolutionised clinical practice in stroke prevention, ranging from emergency treatment of 'threatened' stroke to more effective use of surgery (carotid endarterectomy – removal of a blockage in the carotid artery) to prevent stroke. In particular, research done by the unit showed that the risk of major stroke in the first few hours and days after more minor warning events – so called transient ischaemic attacks – was much higher than previously supposed, such that these events were rebranded as a medical emergency in all international guidelines. The unit developed simple scores to identify high-risk individuals and showed that urgent use of existing treatments reduced the risk of major stroke by 80%. This cheap but highly effective strategy was subsequently adopted internationally, and is estimated to prevent 10,000 strokes per year in the UK alone, saving £200 million in annual NHS costs.
For longer-term prevention, the Unit has also worked on high blood pressure (BP), the most important treatable cause of stroke and vascular dementia, and on the effects of aspirin on non-vascular diseases. Clinical guidelines on BP previously focused only on measuring and treating the average underlying level, ignoring any role for variability in BP in triggering vascular events. Researchers on the Unit showed that fluctuations in BP are actually powerful risk factors for stroke and other vascular events and that widely used BP-lowering drugs differ in their effects on variability. Some drugs increase variability and are ineffective in preventing stroke despite lowering average BP, whereas other more effective drugs reduce both variability and average level.
The Unit's groundbreaking work on aspirin showed that, in addition to its well-known effects in preventing vascular events, it also reduces the long-term risk of several common cancers. They also showed that aspirin had shorter-term benefits by reducing the spread of cancer around the body via the blood stream (known as metastasis), demonstrating for the first time in man that a drug can directly interfere with this process.
Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: 'We are delighted that the world-leading work of the Stroke Prevention Research Unit has been recognised in this way. With a rapidly ageing global population, the need to address age-related illnesses is a clear priority not just in this country but worldwide.
'Since its inception, the Unit has made a great contribution to the field of preventive medicine, revolutionising clinical practice across the globe. In recent years they have built on their outstanding body of stroke prevention work, improving blood pressure management and providing new insights into cancer prevention and treatment.'
Professor Peter Rothwell, founding director of the Stroke Research Prevention Unit, said: 'We are thrilled that the research has been recognised by such a prestigious award, which reflects the hard work of the many staff on the unit as well as the support we have received from the University, funders, collaborating GPs and, crucially, from our patients. It is particularly encouraging to have this endorsement for our philosophy that substantial improvements in patient care can still be gained simply by better understanding of known risk factors and more effective use of existing treatments.'
The Stroke Prevention Research Unit has been funded by the Wellcome Trust, Wolfson Foundation, UK Stroke Association, British Heart Foundation, Dunhill Medical Trust, National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), Medical Research Council, and the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre. The Unit also acknowledges the associated Acute Vascular Imaging Centre, Oxford.
Oxford University has now won nine Queen's Anniversary Prizes for Higher Education, more than any other university. The previous eight prizes were awarded to: the University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (2011); the University's museums, libraries and archives (2009); the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at Oxford University Press (2007); the Clinical Trial Service Unit (2005); the Refugee Studies Centre (2002), the Centre for Clinical Vaccinology & Tropical Medicine (2000); the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (1996); and Isis Innovation Ltd (1994).