As a medical student working as a locum doctor, Alastair Buchan can lay claim to the honour of having welcomed the very first acute surgical patient to the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.

That was way back in 1979. Thirty years on, Professor Buchan, as he now is, is charged with helping to oversee another historic moment in the advancement of healthcare in Oxfordshire during the year that marks the 60th anniversary of the NHS.

For he is a key member of a team working on the final stages of a bid that would bring together the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, Oxford University, the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and Oxfordshire’s Primary Care Trust to create a groundbreaking academic health science centre that could come into being as early as next year.

If he and his colleagues are successful, the city’s main hospitals, along with Banbury’s Horton, will join with Oxford University to create a new kind of health trust that would attract extra funding and the latest technologies, as well as some of the best doctors from across the globe.

For local people it holds the promise of immediate improvements in the quality of treatment, with patients benefiting far more quickly from clinical research coming out of the world-class research centres springing up across the city, specialising in areas such as cancer, diabetes, strokes, dementia, heart disease, women’s health, neurosciences, orthopaedics and paediatrics.

Oxford, along with Cambridge and three London hospitals, is being tipped to make up the first five academic centres, which the Government promises will see “the best clinicians, teachers and researchers moving in to work in the best institutions”.

But it is being left to an international panel of experts to award the new status, with about 30 to 40 bids expected to be submitted by the end of December.

For some, the idea of Oxford University assuming a major role in the development of Oxford’s hospitals will seem something of a throwback to a pre-NHS age and the days of Lord Nuffield’s benefactions and Radcliffe Trustees.

But Prof Buchan believes the creation of an academic health science centre (AHSC) would be the natural evolution of a long and complicated partnership.

“It will mark the end of a 250-year journey,” he said. “It is our chance to get things right. It will allow the university more involvement in the way the hospitals are governed. It will allow the university to help facilitate fundraising for not only education and research, but also to enhance clinical care.”

In many ways, Prof Buchan is the ideal man to be putting the partnership between the university and our hospitals on to a new footing.

It is not so much a question of him having an important foot planted in both camps. As a product of the tradition of medical and academic collaboration himself, he can be viewed as the embodiment of a clinician-scientist steeped in research, an Oxford University man through and through, who dedicates most of his energy to NHS patients.

As the head of the stroke programme, he works alongside professors Peter Rothwell and Peter Jezzard, and is presently working to develop new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating strokes.

In October, he was appointed as the head of Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division, which is responsible for medical education and the full range of biomedical research, from basic science through to testing new treatments.

Last week, he was the university man who appeared before the television cameras as it was announced that the university’s new animal research facility, the Biomedical Sciences Building, had opened.

The £20m facility in South Parks Road has been completed after a two-year delay caused by what has been labelled “an unlawful campaign of intimidation by animal rights fanatics”.

The university had certainly chosen its main spokesman well. Animal rights campaigners on the street dubbed animal testing as unnecessary and outdated. But they found themselves up against a world famous stroke specialist, setting out a direct link between animal-based research and treatments that now come to the aid of his own patients lying in hospital.

“We can do a lot — 80 to 85 per cent — without going to animal models. But sometimes you have to bite the bullet to be sure that something works,” he said.

“Animals are only used in our research where no other technique is available. Some animal use is still essential for medical progress. You cannot make a head injury in a dish. You cannot create a stroke in a test tube and you cannot create a heart attack on a chip. It doesn’t work.”

In his own field of work — discovering stroke interventions that will protect the brain and stimulate recovery — he says animal research has been essential in the development of treatment to unblock arteries and rescue neurones.

But, essentially, he believes the justification for the new biomedical centre, where the research animals are housed, is similar to the case for creating an academic health science centre: the need to ensure research is not just laboratory-based and theoretical, but makes an immediate difference to patients.

The concept of university-hospital partnerships is already long established across Europe and North America, where he went to work in Ontario, New York, and Calgary, after doing his initial training in medicine and neurology at the newly-built John Radcliffe.

He returned to Oxford three years ago and quickly helped secure funding for a new vascular imaging centre, which has been built next to the emergency department at the John Radcliffe, housing the equipment to test for strokes and vascular disease, allowing faster treatment for stroke patients.

Prof Buchan was also heavily involved in another major development last year, when the ORH Trust secured £57.5m after being named by the Government as one of five new biomedical research centres, becoming its first director.

Many view the Government’s plan to establish a small number of elite academic health science centres as simply taking the idea of centres of health excellence one step further, with the same ‘bench to bedside’ ethos.

The speed of the developments has been rapid since the Junior Health Minister, Lord Darzi, signalled the Government’s determination to create what were quickly dubbed ‘super trusts’.

Bids must be in by January 9, with a shortlist announced in February and the panel will announce the successful applications in March. It has meant the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust is reframing its existing bid to become a foundation trust.If the Oxford bid is successful, the academic centre would incorporate the John Radcliffe, the Churchill Hospital and Banbury's Horton Hospital, with the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Headington hopeful of joining, together with an emerging relationship with Oxford Brookes University and the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust.

The NOC was one of only three hospitals to be selected as a biomedical research unit in musculoskeletal disease, following a joint bid with the university to research treatments for chronic bone conditions such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. And with uncertainty surrounding the NOC’s future as an independent trust, joining the other Oxford hospitals and the university in an academic centre would offer a neat solution to its mounting problems, linked to the funding of specialists services. The chief executive of the ORH Trust, Trevor Campbell Davis, has long maintained our hospitals have failed to make the most of “the Oxford brand”, and believes the university will play a pivotal role in creating “one of finest providers of healthcare in the UK and beyond”.

The creation of the centre would effectively formalise the university's complex relationship with local teaching hospitals that has developed over centuries. Many hospital consultants and researchers are fellows of colleges, with university medical students trained at the Radcliffe and Churchill hospitals.

“We are looking at something that would be a true partnership,” said Prof Buchan. “But we are not trying to achieve what happens in some parts of America, where universities own and operate hospitals. We are not taking about the university taking direct responsibility for direction of clinical services and the operation of the hospital.”

What it will do is bring the NHS activities within the university’s strategic thinking in setting its research agenda, with the university specifically responsible for upgrading what he calls “the three Ts”: talent, technology and training.

It is envisaged that the elite designation, amounting to “an internationally recognised badge of excellence”, will prove a magnet to leading doctors and clinicians from around the world, while hospitals would benefit from the university’s massive capacity to attract funding from research councils, charitable trusts, pharmaceutical companies and philanthropic sources.

As for training, for all the Doctor in the House jokes about patients being guinea pigs, Prof Buchan has always maintained that patients actually benefit from being treated in a teaching hospital.

“There is no doubt that being involved in research studies, and having students in attendance, dramatically improves the way patients are looked after,” he said.

In any event, he points out, many people simply do not realise how closely the university has been connected with healthcare since the first proposals to build the county hospital for Oxford were made in 1758 at a meeting of the Radcliffe Trustees, chaired by the vice-chancellor, where the sum of £4,000 was released for a new hospital.

The Radcliffe Infirmary, opened in 1770, was always intended to be an integral part of the university’s Faculty of Medicine.

Two hundred years later, the university had to put in £5m to make sure that the John Radcliffe could open at a time of financial downturn.

But Prof Buchan is looking ahead to the next chapter when the new heart centre opens together with the vascular imaging centre, at the John Radcliffe Hospital, and the new cancer hospital opens its doors at the Churchill, surrounded by pavilions offering various specialisms.

All the new buildings and research advances will not, of course, come down to one bid, but academic health science status could allow healthcare to be changed in Oxfordshire forever.