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The power to improve lives, anywhere: the impact of global research collaboration

Mental health. Gender equality. Fragile health systems. Conflict. When you think about the pressing issues our society faces, solutions might seem years away. But, as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, collaboration between the brightest minds from across the world can quickly transform the landscape - even in the midst of a global health crisis.

At King’s College London and King’s Health Partners we take this collaborative and international ethos into our work, catalysing innovative research partnerships that break down geographical barriers to save and improve lives. Here are just three examples of how international collaborations are accelerating research at King’s.

Improving life chances and survival of babies and infants in low-income countries

Statistics show that in low-income countries the odds are stacked against pregnant women, their babies and young infants, with around 3 million stillbirths and 3 million newborn deaths happening per year.

Professor Steve Williams
Professor Steve Williams, IoPPN

We don’t think this is acceptable which is why Professor Steve Williams from King’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) is leading a remarkable international research initiative to improve chances of survival of babies and infants by using portable MRI machines. Using this game-changing equipment, Professor Williams and the team can understand and address the impact of malnutrition, infection and maternal anaemia on how babies’ brains develop in early life.

Europe’s first portable MRI devices were delivered to the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences and the Evelina London Children’s Hospital and in 2021, through a programme funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Measuring less than 1.4 metres high and 1 metre wide, these mobile, ‘plug-in’ machines can complete a brain scan in minutes and are designed to be used by healthcare teams - even in challenging settings with poor facilities and very little technological infrastructure.

Our consortium has already installed 20 scanners across four continents. Their work scanning babies’ brains in those critical early hours, days and weeks of life will help support major trials and studies that will help children to survive and thrive. So far, we have collaborated with teams in South Africa, Uganda, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Malawi, Ghana and Zambia with further alliances with India, Kenya, Bangladesh and Tanzania planned for the coming year.

An international partnership paving the way for new treatments for anorexia nervosa

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. With food anxiety often one of the main barriers to recovery, researchers from the Virtual Reality (VR) Lab at King’s IoPPN are collaborating with the University of Padova in Italy to harness the latest technology and find new and better ways to support young individuals who live in fear of food.

Headshot of Dr Valentina Cardi
Dr Valentina Cardi, the University of Padova

For the past year, the Lab has been testing virtual kitchen scenarios that could help young people with anorexia to overcome their food anxiety. In the VR kitchen, individuals are introduced to either a positive mood induction procedure (in the form of a playful virtual pet they can interact with) or a motivational script spoken out loud by a supportive avatar to ‘buffer’ their anxiety towards threatening foods. This can spark people’s recoveries - enabling them to eat more, including the ‘forbidden’ foods they may have avoided for years.

Dr Valentina Cardi, based at the University of Padova, leads this study funded by the Medical Research Council, and has been able to test the VR scenarios with almost 100 people between the ages of 16 - 25 in Italy, thanks to the multi-lingual capacity of the VR software. The programme has recently been approved by an NHS Ethics Committee in the UK and the University Hospital Ethics Committee in Padova - an important step in these early stages of testing. Involving researchers from different countries has been crucial in getting the team to this stage. Dr Cardi explains:

We believe that new tools for treating eating disorders must be widely accessible and easily disseminated to patients globally, regardless of language and geography. Our international collaboration and the use of VR, which is a flexible technology, is helping to make this a reality. Our international collaboration will strengthen the reach and relevance of our work to patients all over the world.– Dr Valentina Cardi, Assistant Professor, Department of General Psychology at the University of Padova

The VR Lab’s ultimate ambition is to produce evidenced, cost-effective VR products for worldwide use - ones that can transform youth mental health whilst speaking the language of today’s young people. Designing and testing virtual scenarios that meet the needs of diverse individuals, languages and cultures is essential to supporting as many people as possible. International collaboration is key to making this happen.  

Working around the world to support the mental health of children and young people who have experienced violence

Violence is devasting for families and communities around the world, costing the UK NHS £2.9 billion and the US nearly $37 billion every year.

Experiencing violence in childhood is a key driver in mental ill health later in life, but little is known about how to provide effective care for those who need it. By partnering with community organisations and tapping into international networks of experts, clinicians and researchers, King’s College London is working across the globe to address the mental health impact of violence and improve care.

Dr Vishal Bhavsar, King's Research Fellow
Dr Vishal Bhavsar, King's Research Fellow

Dr Vishal Bhavsar, an NHS doctor and mental health researcher at King’s, has been leading some of these innovative collaborations. His work includes:

Conducting research with charities and policymakers in the UK and Australia, combining expertise to improve how mental health professionals respond to families exposed to domestic violence around the globe.

Collaborating with researchers in the US to explore the most effective ways to support the mental health of children and young people presenting to emergency departments following violence. By developing links with global institutions such as the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies based in New Orleans, he works directly with children and young people from deprived communities to improve support where it is needed the most.

Partnering with a global network of researchers, as part of the Hospital Alliance for Violence Intervention, to develop a mental health evaluation framework which can help healthcare providers around the world set up and continuously improve mental healthcare for young people exposed to violence.

Violence affecting young people has long term influences on individual and family health and wellbeing. Truly involving communities in different parts of the world in the design and delivery of mental health care for young people affected by violence could transform population health and wellbeing in the longer term, and that is really exciting.– Dr Vishal Bhavsar, Research Fellow, King’s College London

These are just some of the many international collaborations at King’s College London. Building these effective and long-lasting partnerships with communities and researchers across the world requires time and resources. Support from the King’s alumni and supporter community can help these projects to continue, ensuring the best possible outcomes now and in the future.

Visit our research pages to find out more about how you can support our ground-breaking work.

In this story

Steve Williams

Steve Williams

Professor of Neuroimaging

Vishal Bhavsar

Vishal Bhavsar

Research Fellow