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The UK’s drug discovery capability is a high value export product as Brexit approaches

The UK’s drug discovery capability is a high value export product as Brexit approaches

Graeme Wilkinson, Head of Virtual Drug Discovery | Medicines Discovery Catapult

4 min read Partner content

The Head of Virtual Drug Discovery at the Medicines Discovery Catapult writes about the UK’s industrial private sector drug discovery capabilities: "The UK is well positioned to take advantage of, and develop new markets for, the provision of virtual drug discovery services, connected through its experts and service providers".

The UK is home to a vibrant biopharma industry, including global ‘big pharma’ and a plethora of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).  The UK has an enviable record in discovering new medicines: responsible for 25% of the most successful medicines ever made. It also has impressive depth in clinical development, scientific and data innovations that enable them. These are highly valuable assets that Medicines Discovery Catapult is putting at the service of the UK industry. Packaging this expertise and infrastructure as a valuable export product that can build and maintain strong international R&D linkages post-Brexit is increasingly important.

The UK’s industrial private sector drug discovery capabilities are strengthened by world-class research focussed universities, and centres of scientific and technical excellence. In addition, advances in computational power and development of ‘game changing’ technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have the potential to transform the industry. The UK is again taking a leading role in this revolution.

However, at a time of considerable change for the UK, our future position with existing partners and markets is unknown. The global competition for healthcare innovation is highly competitive. This provides new and significant opportunities for export growth in commercial sectors where our intellectual capital and service sectors are a scarce and valuable global resource.

The historical image drug discovery conjures up is of a lone scientist in a lab coat, pushing the boundaries of science in the pursuit of a breakthrough or blockbuster that will transform patient care. However, drug discovery is very much a team sport, requiring active participation, each with substantial knowledge, expertise and experience across a diverse set of disciplines. These include fundamental and clinical science, discovery technology, chemistry, toxicology, data analytics, regulation, manufacturing, supply chain logistics and commercial know-how. Development of a new drug also requires huge investments in time and energy. Even in the most productive of companies the success rate of this process is only 30%.

Increasingly, drug discovery has moved from a fully integrated model (with the majority of the disciplines available in-house), to one which can be accessed through a virtual, or fully outsourced model. Often it is an individual or small team who act as champions through the inevitable setbacks along the way. Dipping into pools of expertise, steer the project through multiple external providers and collaborators.

Pharmaceutical site closures and portfolio consolidations have resulted in the displacement of these highly experienced management staff and many of the internal experts. Many of them have dissipated across the services sector; growing existing contract research organisations, forming new companies focussed on providing niche products and services, or establishing themselves as expert consultants, fragmented across the nation. These changes have also resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of SMEs developing new therapeutics, often formed of small teams, focussing on a single disease area or asset. Today, SMEs account for 90% of the UK life sciences community, but 42% of these have less than 5 employees and struggle to access funding, expertise and technology.

This backdrop has informed the strategy for Medicines Discovery Catapult, one of its capabilities: the Virtual R&D platform.

The purpose of Virtual R&D, within Medicines Discovery Catapult, is to ensure an SME – or translational academic - is enabled to drive their drug discovery projects with the best national advice, and with industrial rigour. It does this by working with and connecting SMEs with the UK’s expertise and capabilities they need to advance their projects, in addition to actively helping them develop and execute their plans. It is establishing a national network of experts in drug R&D, in addition to the private sector CROs and public sector centres of excellence that can provide the drug discovery services those experts recommend.

Virtual R&D can also help UK-based Venture Capitalists and University technology transfer offices (TTOs) to perform experimental due diligence of their portfolios, so they can assess and maximise their value to industry. This is a fully scalable capability that can be applied regardless of location.

Medicines discovery is a global industry. The UK is well positioned to take advantage of, and develop new markets, for the provision of virtual drug discovery services, connected through its experts and service providers, and to manage projects and portfolios with, and for international partners.

In doing so, this will help UK companies conduct their business with their international counterparts as the environment around them inevitably shifts.

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