Personalised Biometrics

How punching above our weight has grown our academic reputation

10 schools in Cardiff University have recently formed an interest group called CITER (Cardiff Institute for Tissue Engineering and Repair). Based on our work here at the Centre for Biomechanics Research (CRB), the group invited me to lead the keynote lecture at a workshop called simply ‘imaging’. It wasn’t immediately clear to me why I was invited, so I gave a presentation called “individual assessment of the aberrant intervertebral kinematics” – in short this means the issues and problems we have faced in establishing a clinical and research tool to identify a ‘subject-specific marker’ for abnormal spinal mechanics in people whose spinal pain doesn’t respond to treatment. 

After the day was over, and all the talks had been completed, I realised how wide the problem of these biomarkers is in health today. For example, one presentation described the use of magnetic electroencephalography (MEG) for pinpointing brain areas that have no lesion, but are the functional seat of epileptic attacks – and there was lots more just like it.

On my return from the event I noticed an item on the BBC website advertising the Tomorrow’s World programme. It was on predications for the main scientific advances in 2018 by Carole Haswell, Professor of Astrophysics and Head of Astronomy at the Open University who said:

“I think medical data/medical imaging and interpretation/personalised biometrics and health management will have an increasing impact.” - View here.

The term ‘personalised biometrics’ hit me like a brick! The whole world seems to be looking for biomarkers that will help them understand and attack the mechanisms in individuals with hidden health problems. Personalised biometrics is an area of increasing importance in health research and a lot of it depends on imaging. We (CBR) just happen to be working on one of the most difficult ones – hence CITER’s interest in how we were getting on. We’ve certainly come a long way since my PhD work and AECC’s own spotlight in the 1990s episode of the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World.

I suppose our Centre for Biomechanical Research at AECC University College is often thought of as odd – because some people can’t see why we’re doing what we are doing. As with all the groups similar to CITER, the issues are difficult and hard to explain and we regularly fail to do so adequately. Yet, we keep going anyway. And now we are beginning to crack the problems; we seem to have an academic reputation in some places for being the most advanced research centre for the individualised dynamic assessment of the intrinsic mechanics of the spine.

For a small institution that has dogged determination and has been punching above its weight for a long time, we now seem to have grown our reputation for clearing the hurdles and making real clinical and academic contributions. Of course, there are huge academic centres of excellence that dwarf us and vastly outshine our records of achievement, but the reputation of AECC University College for persistence in taking risks for innovation is finally paying off.

As a chiropractor/researcher I have noticed subtle vilification of my work from time to time and like many of my colleagues, I am sometimes slightly guarded when interacting with people from huge academic bastions of knowledge. However, this experience confirms some suspicions that I have had for some time now – which is that people from these bastions actually mean it when they say, “that’s great work!”. I say that because I can now see the standard of our work in parallel with theirs instead of below it, and we can share that feeling as an institution too.

It’s not until you get an invitation like the one I received that you also get an epiphany about where we have actually got to. We’ve had our heads down running the race, and now we can take in the sights and look at the landscape around us. Academic reputation and impact is a real commodity of AECC University College.

Professor Alan Breen
Professor of Musculoskeletal Health Care and Clinical Director of Special Imaging

If you would like to know more about this research, Professor Alan Breen presents research findings and how it can be used to inform patient care in the first term of each academic year to the year 3 students, though all are welcome. Alternatively, you can visit our Clinical Biomechanics research page.