UK lays out sweeping life sciences plan as Brexit looms

The UK should invest hundreds of millions of pounds in high-risk life sciences “moon shot” projects with the goal of creating “two or three entirely new industries” in the next decade, according to a government commissioned strategy for the sector published this week.

The review, led by John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University, with input from across the industry, including AstraZeneca, Johnson  & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, proposes the creation of a Health Advanced Research Programme (HARP), a body to bridge the gap between government and industry funding and set long-term goals in areas with significant potential, such as genomics and artificial intelligence.

The model for HARP should be DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has backed a broad range of new technologies in the US.

The newly created body would distribute funding to 50 joint programmes between pharma companies and the National Health Service during the next five years, in late-stage clinical trials, large-scale data analysis and evaluation of medical devices and diagnostics.

Bell also sets various 10-year targets, such as attracting 100 world-class scientists and 2,000 discovery scientists, creating four UK companies valued at £20 billion market cap, and achieving a 50 per cent increase in the number of clinical trials.

The life sciences report is the first of five cross sector reports that the government has commissioned as part of an overall industrial strategy. Each will be followed by a ‘sector deal’ to bring the strategy to life.

Having been responsible for its content, people across the sector were naturally enthusiastic about the report. But they will now be watching to see whether the government acts on all the recommendations.

Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, Europe’s largest funder of cancer research said that with the impending exit from the EU and the NHS facing challenges on many fronts, the report comes at a critical time for the UK. “This strategy is not a done deal, so it’s crucial there is sufficient government investment and commitment from the NHS to make it a reality as quickly as possible,” Kumar said.

Similarly, Anne Cooke, vice-president of the British Society for Immunology said, “There is a lot of uncertainty in the research community currently, and we hope this report’s recommendations will lead to firm actions to strengthen and deepen collaborations between the life science sectors.”

 Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, the largest research charity in Europe said, “The success of this strategy now lies in its vision being backed up by concerted effort and investment across government, the NHS, and the research and private sectors.”

As the UK contemplates its future outside the EU, the government has designated the £64 billion life sciences industry – with more than 5,000 companies and 233,000 employees – as one of five that are vital to the economy, along with ultra-low emission vehicles, nuclear and creative industries. A “modern industrial strategy” was laid out in January with the aim of boosting Britain’s weak productivity growth and alleviating business concerns about the negative consequences of Brexit.

The UK must remain attractive to scientists and skilled workers from Europe and elsewhere after it leaves the EU in 2019, the strategy says. The UK is “highly dependent” on a steady influx of international scientists, and forecasts suggest that science sectors will require 180,000 to 260,000 people by 2025.

The UK should also remain as closely involved as possible in the EU drug regulation, and stay involved in the Innovative Medicines Initiative, an EU-funded public private partnership that aims to speed up drug development. However, industry is keen to depart from strict EU rules on data protection and stem cell research, the paper adds.

At the report’s launch, the government also gave details of a planned £160 million life sciences investment, first announced in the spring, to support innovation, development of vaccines and advanced treatments, and research by small and medium-sized companies.

Of the total sum, £146 million will go to five different manufacturing centres and £14 million into 11 medical research and development centres.

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