How the UK’s Life Sciences can drive recovery

In recent months an important and interesting debate has started to take shape in Westminster around some key questions. How broken is the UK economic model? Can we build a sustainable recovery on the same sectors (Finance, Housing, Retail) which led to our over-reliance on debt? What are the products and services that the rest of the world will pay the UK to make and sell around the world in the next phase of global development? Where is the UK’s global usp in the markets of tomorrow? What is the appropriate role of Government in shaping and supporting growth? What is the right balance between deregulation and pro-active intervention? Do we want Government to do less or more? How can we turn the Government and public sector from being a non-productive distributor of wealth to being a catalyst for innovation, enterprise, and productivity?

This debate has started to take shape in Wesminster in the last few months, and not along predictable lines. Whilst New Labour figures like Peter Mandelson continue to defend the importance of wealth creation and an enterprise economy, meanwhile, and surprisingly to some, a new generation of ‘New Tories’ is urging radical thinking about what needs to be done to build a sustainable recovery, suggesting that the challenges of the debt crisis and globalisation demand a much more pro-active strategic vision from HMG of ‘economic reconstruction’, with Government actively identifying some key sectors in which the UK has the potential to provide products and services to the fast emerging world. In effect a ‘Business Plan’ for Britain – a vision for how we’re going to trade our way of the debt crisis brought on by a double decade debt-fuelled boom of consumerism.

This is isn’t about an “Industrial Strategy” to pick winners in some return of 1970s comparison. It’s about identifying sectors and technologies which can drive Britain’s recovery as a trading nation. I believe the UK ‘Life Science’ sector is one such sector with the potential to play a major part in helping the UK achieve a sustainable recovery. Applying our growing scientific understanding of the bio-chemical systems which underpin life to the major challenges facing human society (principally Food, Energy, Medicine)  the UK’s ‘Life Sciences’ are a potential ‘platform technology’ for the UK to  develop a myriad of new business opportunities.

Newly elected after a 15 year career in bioscience venturing, last year I was invited by the Prime Minister to help the Government think about how it could unlock this potential in our medical life sciences. Appointed Govnt Life Science Adviser in June 2011 I spent the second half of last year working closely with Ministers, officials and industry leaders on a deep think about what Government could and should be doing.

In December the Prime Minister launched the Government’s new UK Life Science Strategy to unlock the full value of the UK’s medical life science sector.  It sets out a 10-year vision of where the Government sees the UK sector’s real strengths based on understanding the structural pressures transforming the bio-pharma and healthcare sectors, a hard headed assessment of where the UK NHS and public sector is holding back the sector, and where the UK has real global usp’s. The strategy sets out a commitment to an ‘integrated healthcare economy’ in which the NHS and public sector has a clear responsbility to support a burdgeoning free-enterprise healthcare sector and new entrants developing new technologies, products and services.

The UK’s Life Science sector generates over £50 billion in turnover a year, accounts for 165,000 jobs and 4000 companies from GSK to a myriad of start-ups. At a time when we badly need sustainable growth, I believe our Life Science sector provides an unmissable opportunity for UK plc. Seismic changes in the pharmaceutical sector are changing the way medicines are discovered and developed.  Britain in recent years has started to lose its traditional advantage. The Prime Minister’s speech set out a real strategy prepared by the Department of Health, BIS and the Office of Life Sciences under David Willetts’ leadership to link together academic research,  NHS clinicians and industry to promote closer research collaboration in order to speed up the process of bringing innovation to commercialisation. Properly implemented the benefits will be felt by patients, businesses, Universities, the NHS, and Her Majesty’s Government alike.

We all know that the traditional ‘big pharma’ model of medicines discovery and development isn’t working. Over the last two decades the Pharma industry has seen big falls in the rate of new drugs discovered, despite huge increases in its spend on research. The time and costs of drug development are too high – c 15 years and £1billion to develop a new drug isn’t sustainable. At the same time, the more we know about diseases and genetics the more we discover that ‘one size fits all’ blockbuster medicines will work well for some but badly, not at all, or with unacceptable side effects for others. Across global biomedicine there is a concensus that we need to better inform medicines discovery by reference to the information we have on how and why different patient groups respond differently. Where it’s done best, real ‘Translational Medicine’ isn’t about one way lateral ‘bench to bedside’ ‘translation’; its about a two way, iterative process of collaborative biomedical discovery and development re-centred on patients, in which industry and academia and clinical disciplines work together to share insights and strengths on the clinical utility of biomedical discoveries much earlier in the process than has hitherto been the case.

We need this kind of collaboration not only to maintain the UKs position at the cutting edge of the medical research industry and to encourage investment, but also to respond quicker to the rise in drug demand created by the growing epidemics of western lifestyle diseases such as cancer, dementia and diabetes. These are diseases which will affect most of us at some point in our lives, and most exciting from the recent announcements will be the real benefits for NHS patients.

Much has been made in the press of the implications of this approach in terms of ‘sharing’ patient data, as if it represents some kind of breech of privacy. But the truth is that this isn’t about individual data being used without consent, it’s about large scale data sets of anonymous information already sitting in the NHS, being available for the NHS to use in research, subject to a patient’s right to opt out. Hundreds of thousands of patients are already happily consenting to their data being used in this way, especially in cancer research. ln this way patients can contribute to the global fight against disease, earlier access to innovative treatments and the opportunity to take part in clinical trials. We can finally stop the stories of cancer patients forced to fly overseas to take part in potentially life-saving trials and open up access to more innovative treatments here in the UK.

It is a method of research already being pioneered successfully by charities such as Cancer Research UK which currently has 42,000 patients per year, making up one in every six, involved in research. For some diseases like dementia, no single company is ever going to make the breakthrough we need. We need new collaborations such as that between The South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in collaboration with Kings College London which is developing a research hub to gather together 180,000 anonymised records, MRI scans and drug histories to help them understand current dementia treatments and drive new treatments. For the first time we are able to look at what happens to people with dementia over time before and after treatment.

With an integrated healthcare system, this type of ‘translational medicine’ is something the UK is uniquely well suited to leading the world in. Few places in the world can match our combination of world class University science, research hospitals, ethical framework and industry links. We want to make it easier for these kinds of innovations to be developed so that the UK can become again the world leading centre of biomedical research so patients can begin to access the benefits, and this involves helping the industry with measures such as the new £180 million Catalyst Fund, a streamlined regulatory framework to enable quicker entry to the market for new discoveries, and a whole range of reforms to make it easier for industry, universities and hospitals to work together on clinical research.

A truly integrated healthcare economy is a long way off.  But the vision and goal of a healthcare economy in which the private and public sectors support each other’s – very different – aims, is a radical one. I believe its one that our troubled times demand. I don’t believe we will tackle the crisis of productivity in our public health system without drawing on the leadership, innovation and technologies of a vibrant private sector and seeking to promote similar virtues in the public sector. And I don’t believe we will be able to maintain the full value of the UK Medical Life Science sector without an NHS which is more open to working with and helping the private sector develop and test its innovations.

I believe that this sort of deep thinking about how Government and Industry can work better together to support each other is key to a genuinely sustainable recovery for UK plc.

Written by George Freeman MP, Government Adviser on Life Sciences, May 2012

The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.

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The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.
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One Response to How the UK’s Life Sciences can drive recovery

  1. Excellent post. The rationale is spot-on: economic recovery can only be driven by growing industries that produce what people really need, and are prepared to pay for (so called ‘primary production’). Healthcare falls slap bang in the middle of that definition – and is the highest margin primary-production industry. If the government recognises that it must do more to support the healthcare industry in the UK that is magnificent news.

    As a CSO of a successful biotech company and a VC advisor, though, I am left wondering if there is a fundamental understanding of HOW to support this industry (or indeed ANY industry). It is not about support – money in government-backed investment funds is usually mis-directed and has much poorer returns than “real” commercial money. Poor quality hides behind the strategic imperatives of such funds.

    What is needed is flexibility. Lets make the UK the easiest place to do clinical trials, epidemiology, biobanking. Lets remove the massive hurdles that data protection legislation puts in the way of clinical science. Lets make our animal experimentation legislation much more user-friendly. We have to believe all this can be done without sacrificing the safety of study participants or a balanced and reasonable desire to protect animals from cruelty.

    These are the real interventions that can stimulate growth in this sector, and give us a competitive advantage that can lead to growth. Changes to regulations have the power to transform, in a way injecting money never can. Look at the impact of the brave Patent Box Legislation – that has the power to be transformational. And lets do it again to Data Protection and Animal Experimentation legislation. Its time to be brave!

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