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In Conversation with Barry Henderson, Northern Ireland Emerging as Clinical Trial Hub

Northern Ireland is rapidly developing into a clinical research hub to rival other top global locations, I interviewed Barry Henderson HSCNI Senior Industry Manager, at Health and Social Care Northern Ireland (HSCNI), the NHS in NI. 

In an exclusive interview, Barry outlined numerous advantages that make Northern Ireland ripe for expansion in industry-sponsored trials across an array of therapeutic areas.


Recruitment and Retention

"We demonstrate excellent recruitment and retention rates – typically over 90% of our target in studies across studies in major disease areas," Barry reported. "Our integrated health and social care system across six HSC Trusts facilitates person-centred, joined-up care and lends itself to the adoption and scaling up of new approaches and interventions."

With strong existing performance focused on primary care, respiratory conditions, dementia, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, Northern Ireland is primed for even greater growth in clinical trial volume going forward.


Technology and Infrastructure

The country also benefits from advanced health technology infrastructure. "EncompassNI is part of an HSCNI wide initiative that will introduce the Northern Ireland Electronic Healthcare Record (NIEHCR), a digital integrated health and social care record for all patients across Northern Ireland which is unique in the UK".

"At any point in the healthcare system, medical staff caring for a patient will have full access to all existing health records including patient background, lab tests, x-rays and prescriptions," he added. "This is a tremendously valuable resource as we expand trial capabilities here."

Barry also cited high levels of accessibility to clinical research leads, who tend to be far more available and open to collaborating with commercial trial sponsors compared to leads in many other countries. 


Rapid Growth Trajectory 

Looking ahead, Barry anticipates accelerated expansion of commercially sponsored trials across Northern Ireland in the coming years. "We are planning for a marked increase in industry sponsored clinical research and aim to achieve this through several strategic initiatives," he said.


These include streamlining research approvals into a single body governing clinical trials (HSC Approvals) across the country, building a dedicated industry engagement team (HSC Industry Engagement) to foster sponsor relationships, enhancing data capture to clearly convey site and NI wide capabilities and capacity, and expanding resources to support efficient trial execution.


Trial Location Advantages

Aside from strengths in recruitment, infrastructure and personnel, Northern Ireland offers additional advantages driving its appeal as a clinical trial location.

The country's unified electronic patient records spanning health and social care provide comprehensive views of each patient's full journey, a capability lacking in most other regions.

The small size and population enables tremendously close links between clinicians, patients and the community – a scenario instrumental in accelerating patient identification and recruitment for trials targeting specific conditions. 

Relatively limited prior exposure to clinical trials also distinguishes the Northern Ireland patient population according to Barry. "Our patients tend to be exceptionally enthusiastic to participate and less likely to drop out, leading to lower attrition compared to many other parts of the UK," he said.


Areas to Focus Efforts

Cancer, respiratory illnesses, vision disorders, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases represent particularly strong areas to concentrate future trial investments based on Northern Ireland's vast expertise and patient pools across these conditions.  For example, the PANORAMIC and Novavax clinical trials during COVID-19. Most recently CV6 Therapeutics, a local drug development company, have initiated a UK multisite Phase 1a study of their novel, first-in-class small molecule through the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) led from NI.  “It’s exciting to see the translation from discovery in the lab right through to the clinic, built and trialled in Belfast, providing a further boost to the Life and Health Science sector here.”

Gene therapy and advanced therapy medicinal products offer emerging trial capabilities as well, as expertise in areas like ophthalmic conditions position Northern Ireland well in these cutting-edge spaces, he added.


Overcoming Barriers

While Northern Ireland presents unmatched advantages, Barry recognizes remaining barriers must be addressed for the country to actualise its full potential as a thriving hub for global clinical trials. 

"As with the rest of the UK, we would welcome additional investment specifically to support infrastructure focused on expanding our capacity to recruit patients into trials," he acknowledged. He noted that trial sponsors often approach Northern Ireland late into enrolment periods after struggling to hit targets elsewhere "Earlier engagement from industry is encouraged to allow us to showcase our world class talent, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and the rapid recruitment we can achieve."


Future Outlook

Despite some lingering challenges, Barry illuminates Northern Ireland's future as an elite destination for clinical trials across industry sponsors and therapeutic indications. 

Leveraging inherent strengths around patient recruitment and retention, technology, infrastructure, talent, and site leadership experience, he expects Northern Ireland's clinical trial scene to see continuing growth – cementing its stature as a leading biomedical research and innovation hub on the global stage.


Want to find out more? Reach out to Barry directly at, HSCNI Senior Industry Manager within HSC Industry Engagement. 


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