As a result of what Health Secretary John Reid hailed as a "breakthrough" deal to use available capacity in independent hospitals in the UK, thousands of National Health Service (NHS) patients are expected to have their surgical procedures more quickly than if they had to wait to be served in NHS facilities. Reid said last month that Nuffield Hospitals and Capio Healthcare UK have been awarded contracts to perform almost 25,000 hip, knee and other operations for the NHS in this fiscal year.

The program will see about 880 NHS patients in each strategic health authority beginning to undergo surgical procedures in some 50 independent hospitals across the country, starting within weeks. Some 24,850 surgical procedures will be completed over the one-year contract period, all of which are additional to those provided in NHS facilities.

The contracts will serve all 28 strategic health authorities throughout England. The service will operate from 35 Nuffield and 15 Capio sites. Some 70% of procedures under this program will be orthopedic, with the remainder being for other elective planned, non-emergency surgery.

"This is great news for thousands of NHS patients, who will have their operations more quickly as a result of this agreement," Reid said, adding that "70% of this work will be orthopedics the speciality that has proved to be the toughest nut to crack in terms of long waits." He said that although the NHS "is expanding fast, it is currently not able to deliver this work as quickly as patients need these operations." He noted that the independent hospitals will begin providing procedures under the new program beginning this month.

"I am determined that no NHS patient should wait in pain where we can negotiate cost-effective agreements to use capacity already available in the independent sector in this country," Reid said. He added that the deal "represents good value for the NHS because the cost for each operation and associated care is on a par with equivalent NHS prices."

He said the program "adds even more capacity to an NHS which has already seen a massive increase in capacity." While "record investment in the NHS and the continued hard work of staff has made huge reductions to waiting times," Reid said, "there will be no loss of momentum in our drive to speed up access to surgery and offer patients a choice of where they are treated." By next year, he said, "nobody should have to wait longer than six months for an operation."

Noting that there was "some disappointment that UK providers did not secure treatment center contracts last time," Reid said he was "encouraged to see that UK providers can offer well-priced bids, competitive with overseas providers. I am pleased that radical steps have been taken to reduce prices."

David Mobbs, chief executive officer of Nuffield Hospitals, said that as a not-for-profit organization, Nuffield's objective of making high-quality healthcare more accessible for all is "right on target in terms of this contract to support the work of the NHS. The patient should be at the heart of healthcare delivery be that state or independent."

Tim Elsigood, who heads up the Capio Healthcare UK business, said, "Across Europe, 75% of Capio's patients are state-funded [so] we welcome this opportunity to help the NHS meet its waiting list targets as well as providing further choice for NHS patients."

Bids sought on UK mobile scanners

In another action aimed at cutting waiting times for healthcare service in the UK, Reid invited bidders to supply the NHS with mobile magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners and staff as part of a five-year project aimed at cutting waiting times across England. The new scanners will be targeted at areas of greatest need and are expected to be operational this summer. The program will see 80,000 more MRI scans a year in the NHS, representing a 10% increase in capacity.

Reid said MRI scans "help diagnose many cancers and other serious conditions such as congenital disorders, acute or chronic migraine and headaches, epilepsy, bone infections, severe back pain, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and chest pains." He said, "significant investments in MRI and other techniques" already have made strong headway, "but waiting lists remain across England for this key diagnostic procedure and we need to do more to improve this situation."

Reid said the addition of new mobile MRI scanners "will ensure more NHS patients get access to important early diagnosis and therefore better prospects for successful treatment." He said such solutions "will ensure we reach NHS patients in the areas of greatest need, and provide greater access to important diagnostic tests." The addition of staff provided by the independent sector "will provide additional staff to ease pressure on existing NHS diagnostic teams," Reid said.

Pharmacia Diagnostics sale completed

Pfizer (New York) said last month that it had completed the sale of its Pharmacia Diagnostics (Uppsala, Sweden) unit to Triton, a European private equity firm, and PPM Ventures, the private equity arm of Prudential. At the time the deal was announced in January, it was valued at $575 million. European Union competition authorities approved the sale in late March.

The 30-year-old company, which makes equipment used in in vitro allergy and autoimmune diagnostic testing, was acquired by Pfizer in its purchase of Pharmacia (Peapack, New Jersey) a year ago. Its blood-test systems are used by hospitals and laboratories in the diagnosis and monitoring of patients for upper-respiratory diseases such as allergies and asthma. The company has about 1,100 employees in 60 countries.

Nanotechnology institute in Northern Ireland

The University of Ulster (Belfast, Northern Ireland) last month opened a new Nanotechnology Research Institute at its Jordanstown campus. University and economic development officials see the 8 million research institute as positioning Northern Ireland at the forefront of nanotechnology research in the UK and said it would be a catalyst for the future growth in the biotechnology, medical devices and textile industrial sectors.

Funded by investment from the European Union, research councils, HEFCE, private industry and the Invest Northern Ireland economic development organization, the new facility will focus on research into bio-sensing, tissue engineering, drug delivery, surface science, nanotubes, plasma technology, nano-scale patterning and nano-scale manipulation.

Professor Jim McLaughlin, director, said the institute "is a recognition of the reputation for innovation and excellence we've built up at the University of Ulster over the past decade." He said it would build on the university's existing nanotechnology research partnerships. "Uniquely in the UK or Ireland," McLaughlin said, "we're bringing life sciences and cell biology under the same roof as nanotechnology." He added: "That kind of structural integration and cross-fertilization of ideas will be invaluable in the development of new process and technologies in the future."

He said that nanotechnology developments have "exciting device applications, which can lead via improved bio-devices to a better quality of life, improved wealth creation and a stronger base to fully develop our knowledge-based economy."

epheid to market biothreat products

The U.S. State Department has granted Cepheid (Sunnyvale, California) an export license for its GeneXpert system and GeneXpert Anthrax test cartridge, allowing the company to market the products to certain European nations for biothreat detection. The license allows the products to be marketed to specific government agencies in the UK, Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland.

Saying that "bioterrorism and the threat of anthrax have emphasized the need for more accurate and rapid genetic assessment," Cepheid's Jeff Ryan, PhD, noted that the GeneXpert System can be employed in mobile laboratories, office buildings and in a variety of military settings. The products can enhance homeland defense capabilities in the countries where it will be sold, Cepheid said. The GeneXpert system and cartridge are designed to enable users to rapidly going from raw specimen to result in as little as 30 minutes and accurately detect the potential presence of anthrax.

Ablatherm use continues to grow

EDAP TMS (Vaulx-en-Velin, France), a developer of minimally invasive devices for the treatment of urological diseases, said it continues to see increasing acceptance in Europe for its Ablatherm device, which uses high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) to treat localized prostate cancer. The company said that usage of HIFU in treating localized prostate cancer is growing in Europe. Since the first treatment with an Ablatherm device in 1993, more than 4,500 patients have been treated with the technology and more than 50 clinical sites use the device on a fixed or mobile basis.

A recent article in Urology, written by two physicians from the University of Regensburg in Germany, reported successful clinical results at five-year follow-up after Ablatherm treatment. The study involved 137 patients and showed 93.4% constant negative biopsies in that patient population. It said only two of those treated had a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level that rose to greater than four over the five-year follow-up period. President Hugues de Bantel said the studies "continue to validate HIFU with the Ablatherm as a clinically effective and safe treatment option. Reproducibility of the five-year follow-up results from several centers in Europe is a clear indicator of this effectiveness."

Center for Disease Prevention approved

European Union ministers agreed last month to create a new European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, after a fast-track procedure sped the proposal through the EU in a record eight months. The center, to be based in Stockholm, Sweden, should become operational in 2005. It is in part a reaction to the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome and bird flu.

"This new EU agency will enable Europe to be better prepared for future epidemics," said Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne, as the ministers put their signature to the deal. The center will enable Europe to pool its disease-control expertise more effectively, allowing EU disease-outbreak investigation teams to be put together quickly and efficiently.

Bone grafting trial in Barcelona

Zellera AG (Berlin, Germany), a subsidiary of Aastrom Biosciences (Ann Arbor, Michigan), started a bone grafting clinical trial to be conducted by the Institut de Terapia Regenerativa Tisular at three hospitals in Barcelona, Spain. The feasibility trial is designed to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of Aastrom's Tissue Repair Cells to regenerate new, healthy bone in the repair of non-union large bone fractures.