Lord Willetts: Let’s make the UK a centre for cost-effective creative drug discovery
From genetic sequencing to monoclonal antibodies too many great British discoveries have ended up commercialised in the US, writes Lord Willetts.
Life sciences is one of our great national assets. We have world class researchers, major pharmaceutical companies and an increasingly lively biotech sector and of course the extraordinary resource of the NHS. But we all know how hard we find it to capitalise on these strengths. From genetic sequencing to monoclonal antibodies too many great British discoveries have ended up commercialised in the US.
There are deep issues here about how we fund research and innovation. In my new book, A University Education, I explain how we have ended up with an unusually high proportion of our research activity based in universities. This is a great environment for world class research – the kind of research that gets published in the top journals. That is the behaviour which is rewarded by the incentive structure for university academics. But there are fewer incentives for applying that research. Successive Governments have concluded that university spin-outs should be rewarded but that can mean that small vulnerable companies are created too soon when they are really still science projects and need a much more protective environment for longer. That support can come from applied research institutes outside universities which they have in the US and in Germany but Britain lacks such a network. Successive Governments have tried to create them but they fall out of favour in Whitehall and many of them are closed, privatised, or handed over to universities.
The latest attempt to create these institutions is the Catapult Centres which we introduced in Coalition, based on the German Fraunhofers. They enjoy a mix of public and private funding and include several with distinctive missions in the life sciences. The Cell Therapy Catapult, based at Guys Hospital, tackles the challenge that whilst we can grow specific cells in a lab it is still a long difficult journey to turn that into mass production of cells for application to treat a specific condition. The Catapult is succeeding brilliantly in this.
The mission of the Medicines Discovery Catapult is to make the UK a centre for cost-effective creative drug discovery. Across Western countries the number of drugs successfully developed per $1b of research spend has fallen thirty-fold over the last forty years. The Catapult has just published an excellent hard-hitting report on what we can do to raise our game in the UK. They themselves can help by for example making available to researchers improved models of human organs. We need to promote better access to samples and patient data – the NHS has enormous potential to be the world leader in patient data but there are difficult issues of patient trust as we saw with the unhappy episode of care data.
More widely we need to ensure UK bioscience companies have access to the capital they need to finance business growth, clinical trials and setup manufacturing facilities. The government’s Patient Capital Review is a positive step towards addressing the UK’s chronic weaknesses in long-term investment. A key area for policy makers to focus is on unlocking the £2 trillion in pension funds to finance the UK’s innovative companies. A small fraction of this, nudged in the direction of UK biotech, will make a big difference.
Equally important are frictionless trade arrangements between the UK and the EU, and the integrated UK-EU regulatory framework that underpins these trade arrangements. Any disruption to these companies’ supply chains as a result of Brexit would affect their ability to manufacture and export medicines, as well as risk the supply of medicines to patients in both the UK and the EU.
We have enormous opportunities. We need remorseless practical work to take make the most of them.
Read the Medicines Discovery Catapult's response piece here: How our vital biotech community can be helped to prosper