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Government must not allow UK life sciences to be levelled down

Sir Mike Rake, Chair

Sir Mike Rake, Chair | Great Ormond Street Hospital

4 min read Partner content

The Government has launched its UK Science and Technology Framework in its latest bid to make the UK a global ‘powerhouse’ of research. Its publication signals a welcome commitment to research and development – but is the wider policy environment geared towards delivering the outcomes that ministers want to achieve?

Last year, Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) helped develop an innovative new therapy to treat previously incurable T-cell leukaemia – a scientific advance that has the potential to drastically improve survival rates for children with rare cancers all over the world.

This is exactly the sort of ground-breaking NHS innovation the Government should be focusing on building as a UK specialism. Innovation works best when a critical mass of researchers, clinical trial patients and state-of-the-art facilities are physically co-located and relentlessly focused on pushing the boundaries for their patients. In healthcare, this is known as the ‘bench to bedside’ model: a process of developing a treatment and administering it to a patient in a co-located clinical setting. It is significantly quicker, cheaper, and more effective than trying to take the steps across different locations. 

The recent T-cell leukaemia treatment breakthrough is an example of a highly effective scientific cluster, involving on-site trials and collaboration between GOSH and University College London to bring together world-leading expertise in research into rare diseases in children.

The Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan will want to ensure that plans for scientific clustering deliver results. Better support to drive NHS innovation is desperately needed – both at the specialist centres where new treatments are developed, and across the innovation pathway to expedite access to new therapies for children everywhere.

The research community in the UK has been hearing mixed messages from government to date, however, which need to be cleared up by the Secretary of State as soon as possible.

The first is around so-called ‘levelling up.’ The life sciences play a proud and enduring role in creating wealth across the country, but there are areas, including London, where world-leading scientists and facilities cluster and this must be built on and expanded, not diluted.

The second, relatedly, is funding. We were told Brexit would herald new opportunities for expanding our research and clinical trial capabilities, but the reality is that we risk going backwards in terms of our global attraction as a place to do cutting-edge research. Government still has not managed to guarantee the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, a key EU funding programme for health research. Concerningly, the new UK Science and Technology Framework makes no mention of rejoining Horizon Europe – and being locked out of the programme could mean the UK losing out on a share of billions in R&D funding. If the government cannot secure our involvement in this vital research initiative, it will simply mean there is less resource available to find the next life-saving breakthrough.

We were told Brexit would herald new opportunities for expanding our research and clinical trial capabilities, but the reality is that we risk going backwards in terms of our global attraction as a place to do cutting-edge research.

If these issues are not clarified and addressed immediately, Government will risk actually ‘levelling down’ the very research institutions in the UK that are making the most vital advances. 

There is much work to do to eradicate childhood disease, both at home and further afield, and the UK has the capacity to lead that charge. Delivering on that, however, means playing to our strengths, supporting our world-leading centres to keep innovating and making it easier for all patients to access them, regardless of where in the UK they live.

We should absolutely seek to strengthen healthcare and research capabilities across the UK, but never at the price of diluting our existing nerve centres of research and innovation, wherever they happen to be. If we do that, we will simply see less of the life-saving innovation breakthroughs the NHS needs in order to meet the growing resource challenges being placed on it.

The collaborative work undertaken by dedicated health researchers and clinicians like those at GOSH has the potential to save the lives of children all over the world, with the UK leading the way. That is a privilege, but also an opportunity; one that the Government should look to protect and enhance. Levelling up must not come at the cost of levelling down the very research institutions that are, thanks to collaboration and co-location, leading the fight against rare childhood cancers.

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