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Durham University

Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing

Funded Projects

Every year the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing opens a competitive funding scheme for research within the Institute’s remit that is designed to lead to the submission of an externally-funded large grant proposals within 12 months of completing the WRIHW grant.

This year the Institute funded 7 new projects to the value of £32,084, summaries of each are below. The total sum of financial support provided to Wolfson Centres, SIGS and Projects in 2017/18 is £61,813.

En’Light’en Project: towards dynamic healthcare environments

Illness and incapacity confines us. As patients we spend our time in constructed spaces. Once, taken-for-granted experiences become memories: the sound of the sea and the feeling of a salty sea breeze; the smell of freshly cut grass and sound of wind in the trees; light reflected on water; a spectacular sunrise; the view from the top of a hill; etc. Research has demonstrated clear links between the visual experience of landscape; patient recovery and general wellbeing. For hospital patients, a view on to nature is known to have positive effects on recovery, reducing length of stay. For many, however, due to the “medicalised” design of hospital buildings, this is not an option.

This internationally competitive multidisciplinary cross-faculty programme supported by the WRIHW seeks to establish novel economic ways to bring a sense of the natural environment into healthcare settings with the aim of improving well-being and rates of recovery. Artist Dr Laura Johnston, a recent Durham Leverhulme Artist in Residence, is working in close collaboration with Dr Paul L Chazot (Biosciences) and Dr Edel McCauley (S Tees HDU Clinical research fellow), Professors Steve Bonner (Critical care medicine, S Tees NHS Foundation Trust), Gordon Love (Computing Sciences) and John Girkin (Physics and Centre for Visual Arts and Culture at Durham University), to develop inexpensive personally-controlled devices that bring visual views and a sense of the ‘dynamic’ natural environment to patients and staff in hospital and hospice settings. The impact of the devices will be evaluated and benefits on health and wellbeing will be established, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Centre in Infancy and Sleep

This funding will be used to support a large grant application for an ESRC Centre in Infancy and Sleep. The Centre proposes to bring together a core team of Durham researchers in Anthropology with a network of clinicians and researchers in other disciplines including psychology, public health, epidemiology, statistics and sociology, as well as with research users. The Centre’s aim is to critically re-evaluate and extend existing knowledge on infancy and sleep, reconceptualising theories of infant sleep development via detailed comparative examination of the parent-infant sleep experience in multiple cultural and social ecologies situated within contemporary local and global contexts, to challenge the authoritative wisdom of prevailing western parenting advice and health care guidance regarding infant sleep. Although this work has far reaching practical applications for health (as infant sleep is increasingly medicalised in our culture), the questions we address are fundamentally grounded in social science disciplinary perspectives. Our research programme for DISC takes up the challenge of transforming contemporary theory and practice around conceptualisations of infancy and sleep by asking critical anthropological questions, generating new theory, and producing novel data via basic, applied and translational interdisciplinary research.

Critical Toxicologies: New Perspectives on Old Poisons

In a world of growing chemical dangers, are we all toxicologists now? How are complex responsibilities for, and pathways of, toxic regulation, exposure, and protection claimed by different expert and lay groups? Integrating social and health sciences, the research offers innovative approaches to a problem of significant public concern – how to navigate a world of (often hidden) toxicity in which acquiring toxicological knowledge becomes essential for healthy living. The research will adopt a comparative perspective across Europe, South Asia, and Latin America. There, the release of immuno-, neuro-, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals into water, air, and food generate medical, social, and environmental movements that offer new perspectives on old problems – most crucially, when does a remedy become a poison, and a poison become a remedy, and can a state of purity ever be achieved? The research will explore biomedical toxicologies and its critical alternatives (‘queer,’ ‘subaltern,’ ‘conspiratorial,’ ‘citizen-led’) as they are mobilised to aid toxicological understanding. Opportunities arising from the research include developments in: (1) interdisciplinary theoretical understanding of poisons as biological and social agents; (2) relationships between toxic materialities and toxic discourses in contexts of poor health outcomes; (3) the role of citizen-led science in strengthening toxicological knowledge.

Giving up tobacco – heritage and alternative livelihoods in former tobacco growing communities in Australasia

Article 17 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is ‘Provision of support for economically viable alternative activities’. This project looks at how a legacy of tobacco cultivation can be recognised and shaped into appropriate heritage activities in informative but unsentimental ways. It is being planned in association with Ruth Young, an archaeologist at Leicester University who is an expert in developing community collaborations around local heritage. Motueka is a former tobacco-growing town in Aotearoa/New Zealand where economically viable alternatives have been successfully introduced within living memory, while the town’s museum has developed an engaging exhibit commemorating its tobacco heritage. The researchers plan to visit the museum and see its tobacco exhibit when it is back in situ again following a period of closure for earthquake strengthening and refurbishment work. There they will discuss possibilities for the further development of the exhibit and the archives held by the Motueka Historical Association that have been in storage. They will also explore the potential for mapping the standing and more ephemeral remains of the surrounding ‘tobacco landscape’. Motueka could be a model for other places that have given up tobacco cultivation. There are many former tobacco-growing communities in Australia whose tobacco heritage is marked in different ways and, in some cases, not at all. By developing a network of extant Historical Associations in such communities, the project is intended as a precursor for the development of a funded partnership of academics and former tobacco-growing communities in Australasia that have transitioned to economically viable alternative activities as a model for other nations to follow.

Haemodynamics in human right heart

In this Wolfson funded project, a UG research assistant will be recruited to conduct preliminary data analyses on haemodynamics in human right heart. The data acquired at Newcastle University MR centre by the-state-of-the-art phase-contrast MR technique, provide not only scalar magnitude but also three velocity components, both resolved to twenty cardiac phases. Due to the uniqueness of the technique, the analyses involve manual segmentation of the right atrium and ventricle geometry by an in-house developed software.

The project will provide necessary benchmark data to develop an external major grant application aiming to make an important change to the current main cardiovascular experimental research practice from in-vivo measurements on human volunteers or animals to in-vitro measurements on realistic phantom models using high accuracy, high spatiotemporal resolution non-invasive engineering laboratory tools. It effectively changes the focus of the research from clinical medicine oriented to multiple disciplines. Use of phantoms also permits reliable control of physical parameters, cycle repeatability and is in line with the principles of the 3Rs.

The proposal to be developed will perform in-depth experimental investigation of haemodynamics, wall-motion characteristics and their interaction, from which physical models will be established and computational model can be validated. Artificial tricuspid valves will also be tested on phantom models to investigate their primary impact on physiological haemodynamics. The proposal will involve national (Durham Engineering and Newcastle Cardiovascular Research Centre) and international (National University of Singapore) collaborators, who are specialised in clinical medicine, solid and fluid mechanics, bio-material engineering, respectively, hence is strongly interdisciplinary.

Dance Programme for People with Chronic Breathlessness

The aim of this programme is to trial a dance activity for people who live with chronic breathlessness in North East England. It derives from research carried out through the Wellcome Trust-funded Life of Breath project in the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University and provides an opportunity to translate our research into action with this underserved group.

We see this as a real opportunity for translation of our research by advancing a potentially important adjunct to therapy for people with breathlessness and to show that our research has the potential to provide real benefits to patients addressing a gap in approaches to management


Chronic breathlessness is difficult to treat and few resources are available to patients. A key approach to treatment is to offer ‘pulmonary rehabilitation’, an exercise programme run by specialist physiotherapists in a gym-like space. Uptake is poor and previous research suggests this is because people with breathlessness do not like being made to feel even more breathless through exercise. Our research with British Lung Foundation ‘Breathe Easy’ support group participants has added further nuances to this, including the unfamiliarity of the gym-like space and that patients are put off by the language of ‘pulmonary’ and ‘rehabilitation’. Interdisciplinary, collaborative work with neuroscientists has also revealed that people with chronic breathlessness have poor ‘interoception’ or bodily awareness. In collaboration with a dance teacher we propose that a dance programme would address these issues by providing exercise in more culturally familiar form, in a non-challenging space, engaging the entire body and changing the language of engagement with a therapeutic programme.

Working with Williams, who has experience of devising dance programmes for people with respiratory disease, we propose to offer a series of 10 weekly dance workshops to people with chronic breathlessness. Building on existing strong relationships with Breathe Easy Darlington, whose members have expressed interest in being involved, we would like to base the workshops in that area. We hope this pilot programme will provide ‘proof of concept’ for dance as a valuable activity for people with chronic breathlessness and that in due course it might be rolled out through the British Lung Foundation’s Integrated Breathe Easy model. This means that there is the potential for this impact to reach beyond the immediate area and be taken up nationally or even internationally in a similar way to the existing ‘Singing for Lung Health’ programmes. The ubiquitous nature of dance means there is scope for tailored culturally relevant programmes in every corner of the globe.

Apologies, Vows and Cultural Betrayal

The Wolfson has funded Durham's Centre for Death and Life Studies until July 2018 to pursue some networked thinking of potentially interested parties with the aim of making an application to a major research funder for a project on ‘Apologies Vows and Cultural Betrayal’. This might well engage colleagues in anthropology-sociology, theology and ethics, history and law, psychology, and the medical humanities at large. My hypothesis is that there are strong theoretical advances to be made, and practical outcomes to be considered, by linking these topics in an interdisciplinary way. I’d be glad to hear from interested colleagues.

The field is broad because Apologies proliferate in contemporary worlds of politics, NHS, BBC, churches, colleges and universities, with leaders challenged to change their or predecessors’ stance now regarded as offensive. In society at large Vows pervade legal, medical, and clerical professions, as well as marriage and partnership ceremonies, and some voluntary organisations. One theoretical issue concerns how vows inform, sustain, or constrain those taking or breaking them. This is where Cultural Betrayal enters the field when radically disruptive acts of doctors, priests, police, politicians, spouses or partners shake public / private confidence and this is precisely where all three topics cohere in terms of human wellbeing. What can be made of these issues remains to be seen.