How our vital biotech community can be helped to prosper

Posted On: 
5th February 2018

UK pharma R&D productivity is at an all-time low, warns Chris Molloy, but it’s not too late to create an ecosystem that will secure this sector’s future. 

The UK biotech needs help. Medicines R&D productivity is at an all-time low, the UK environment is highly fragmented; the vital flow of Intellectual Property (IP) from academia is highly variable. Moreover, 40% of UK biotech SMEs have fewer than 5 people with which to manage one of the most complex of industrial tasks. These realities and clear calls to action are shown in an intimate report ‘The State of the Discovery Nation 2018’ recently published by the new Medicines Discovery Catapult supported by the BioIndustry Association and welcomed at its launch by the incoming Chief Executive Designate of UK Research and Innovation, Professor Sir Mark Walport.

Despite the greatest explosion in ‘new’ biology in 50 years, pharma R&D productivity has been falling for a decade. Leading companies now have a return on investment in R&D of only 3.4%, and spiralling R&D costs. To initiate real change, new academic tools are needed in industry to make lab-based testing more predictive for humans, more patient involvement is needed to ensure new products are valuable and clinical research systems must evolve further to enable industry-class trials in patients at an earlier stage.

The State of the Discovery Nation 2018 report contains detailed responses from over 200 online surveys and 100 face-to-face interviews with senior executives of UK drug discovery companies. The Medicines Discovery Catapult has identified four major themes that it, and other national stakeholders must grasp to create the ecosystem that will secure this sector’s future.

It is essential that we enable faster release of academic breakthroughs in drug discovery for industrial use. Biotechs need access to new models that better reflect human disease, but much of this remains locked in academia. They find that overly complex IP negotiations and insufficient industrial validation dissuades them from using their limited time and expensive venture capital to extract these potentially game-changing approaches. SMEs and academia need independent testing of potentially breakthrough models and informatics.

Biotechs and academia also need independent industry-class ‘translational’ testing especially for early-stage, hard-to-fund concepts. Biotechs rely on a flow of new drug concepts that are rigorously proven at an early stage. Concept testing in the UK is funded to a limited extent but often the money flows to groups without industrial experience, and is rarely independently performed.

Modern medicines discovery requires improved access to pre-consented patient samples and linked outcome data. The challenges of identification and contract negotiation around these assets causes 75% of UK SMEs to go abroad for these assets, when there are millions of consented biosamples banked across the UK. Biotechs need better signposting and brokering of SME-relevant contracts.

Finally, we must enable easier access to the national R&D systems that can help them. The NHS, charities and research councils have a wide range of infrastructure and skills that could help biotechs develop their products without having to reinvest, or reinvent. These capabilities are themselves fragmented, which, coupled to biotech’s national fragmentation means they often go unknown or unused. Biotechs and national capability owners need greater visibility to each other and means by which industry can leverage public resources to create national wealth.

These are high-risk ‘somebody really needs to…’ challenges, exactly those which public funds should target and address through the work of experienced hands. The now-established UK Catapult Network specialises in taking up these challenges on behalf of their sectors. They do so by focussing their rare expertise, equipment and R&D collaborations upon breaching specific industry barriers. By effective joint R&D, signposting and helping other UK stakeholders deliver their full value to SMEs, they deliver a National Help Service to their industry. The Medicines Discovery Catapult is setting out now with mission and purpose, armed with evidence on how our vital biotech community can be helped to prosper.

To read the ‘State of the Discovery Nation 2018 and the role of the Medicines Discovery Catapult’ report visit https://md.catapult.org.uk/report-state-of-the-discovery-nation-2018/