Leading the next wave of life-science innovation will bolster the NHS and economy
George Freeman MP says supporting our leadership in 21st-century life sciences is not only good for our NHS, it would be a major boost to our economy.
I have worked in and around the NHS for most of my career and had the privilege of serving as the UK’s first ever Minister for Life Sciences.
I’ve seen the challenges we face from both sides of the divide: on the frontline as a Life Science entrepreneur and as a Minister responsible for the £18bn Life Science portfolio across BEIS, DHSC, NICE, NHS Digital, MHRA and NIHR.
The pace of change in the sector, and the scale of the structural, socio-demographic challenge in UK healthcare requires bold new approaches.
That’s why I very much welcome this new State of the Discovery Nation report from Medicines Discovery Catapult and the BioIndustry Association.
Supporting our leadership in 21st-century life sciences is not only good for our NHS, it is also a major boost to our economy.
Indeed, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2015, the life sciences industry contributed £30.4 billion in UK GDP, supported 482,000 jobs and contributed £8.6 billion in taxes. According to the BIA’s benchmarking report, by 2025 the UK could support an additional 33,000 biotech jobs and 50 biotech companies at early clinical stage.
But the report also sets out how the UK can lead the next wave of life-science innovation with AI.
Data science is now vital to making the best decisions on which drug targets and candidates to progress. In the UK, we have some unique advantages in this area. We have the best research programmes in the world, an unrivalled data-set thanks to the NHS and a financing powerhouse in the shape of the City. As I set out as Minister in the Accelerated Access reform and Life Science Strategy: by better integrating medicine and discovery, we can ensure UK patients have access to the latest life-saving drugs and that we continue to lead the world in medicines discovery.
So how do we achieve that vision?
First, we need to use technology better. We urgently need to turn the NHS from being a barrier to technology to being a champion and pioneer of it.
Take the example of digital health. We need to stop running schemes through the usual silos. Instead, we need to change the incentives. We should be saying to NHS Trusts: if you can reduce the forecast incidents of late-stage diabetes and dementia, we’ll reward you. Almost immediately, those Trusts would start working with the most innovative digital health companies. Instead of being a technology tick-box exercise, this would give public services an incentive to become a much earlier procurer of technology. The more they innovated and the better their results, the more money they'd have to invest in patient care.
Second, we should set up a cross-party commission to look in detail at how the NHS operates and how it could be improved. We need to frame a nonpartisan, sustainable model for a 21st-century health and care system.
Third, with healthcare costs rising - due, in part, to an aging population - we need a more profound debate about how the NHS and care is funded long-term. We have to end the idea that co-payments and top-ups are somehow antithetical to the NHS. Part of that conversation, as I set out when I was Minister for Life Sciences, must also be about how we harness the value of the NHS as a research engine. That means attracting new investment, getting NHS patients faster access to innovative treatments and allowing the NHS to secure discounts from the life science industry on new drugs by helping reduce the time, cost and risk of discovering and developing them.
Healthcare is going through a profound transformation. The old model of top-down, silo-ed, health and care provision to a passive population in the late stages of diseases is being replaced by a new model based on digital patient empowerment, earlier intervention, prevention and active patient engagement in a new research landscape. The NHS gives us a unique chance to lead and share this revolution with the world. We should seize it.
*This article originially appeared in the House Magazine