The fight against Covid-19 united the government, research institutes, the pharmaceutical industry and civil society in working to achieve a common goal. As the UK moves into a post-pandemic world where once again we are looking at the challenges of communicable and non-communicable diseases, that cooperation could help address health inequalities and improve patient outcomes, as well as tackle any future pandemics.
However, the sector is facing challenges. Participation in industry clinical trials fell by 44 per cent between 2017 and 2022, the medicines’ regulator, Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), has a backlog of approvals, and employers are struggling to fill jobs in a highly skilled and competitive global market.
At the New Statesman’s Future of Healthcare conference in October, experts and policymakers came together in a panel session to discuss how to translate research and development in health into better treatments and patient outcomes. This panel was sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Jazz Pharmaceuticals and the biotechnology company Novavax.
For Rosalind Campion, director of the Office for Life Sciences, the answer is down to the Life Sciences Vision, the ten-year strategy guiding her government office to make “strategic bets”. “The first really big bet that we’ve made, is in the genomics space,” she said, which has included creating the UK Biobank, Genomics England and the UK’s biggest-ever clinical research programme, Our Future Health.
Following that is positioning the NHS as an “innovation partner” and providing the infrastructure and training needed to do that, as well as ensuring the business environment is supportive. And finally, she said, “we need to learn from how we approached Covid-19, bringing together the best of industry, the best of the NHS, the best of academia, the best of philanthropy, under the direction of a single leader and focusing on solving a key problem.”
While there is a strong life sciences base in the UK, the more recent trends were of concern to Paul Blakeley, senior policy adviser at the Tony Blair Institute. “Foreign direct investment is down, the number of IPOs [initial public offerings] are down, concerns around clinical trials remain, and the NHS is still struggling to adopt innovation at the speed and scale that we would like,” he said. On top of this, the world has become far more competitive, with countries such as Spain and Australia emerging as strong challengers, and regions including the Middle East and south-east Asia also investing heavily in life sciences. However, he also felt there were opportunities in “improving population-wide health and growth” using new treatments to get people back into work and developing longer-term strategic partnerships with companies.
[See also: Can the UK be a life sciences superpower?]
“If you want to ensure that patients are getting cutting-edge treatments early, it’s within the context of a clinical trial,” said Simon Newton, UK and Ireland general manager at Jazz Pharmaceuticals. Newton highlighted that developing medicines in partnership with the NHS is crucial to provide UK-based data on those medicines, so that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) can make informed decisions, and clinicians can be trained in the use of new medicines. The challenge is that clinical trials in the UK are perceived as “slow, difficult to do and quite expensive”, he said, with doubts over how quickly new treatments will be taken up in the NHS compared with other countries. Newton said that stability, predictability and the clearing of the MHRA’s backlog are what industry needs from regulators.
“Everything we do is purely about vaccines for infectious diseases. From respiratory diseases and beyond, our vaccine and adjuvant technology can be applied to address current and emerging global health threats,” said Paul McIntosh, country director for Novavax, UK and Ireland. He talked about how there was a much more open and collaborative environment with government and industry throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a risk of that communication being lost as the Covid-19 threat recedes, even though the virus is still driving a significant number of infections and hospitalisations. “When needed, and the call went out, everybody stepped up. Let’s not lose that great partnership that’s taken so long to develop,” he said.
Participants also discussed the 27 recommendations of the O’Shaughnessy review into UK commercial clinical trials. Campion said that implementing these would be key to tackling the challenges facing the life sciences sector. “We have already implemented five of those recommendations and will be later this year publishing a full response about the implementation of them all,” she said. On top of this, there are efforts to drive greater participation in trials through the patient-facing NHS app.
There were also practical suggestions for making existing systems work better. “We’ve got to recognise that people in the NHS are time poor, they’ve been asked to do 1,000 things at once,” said Blakeley. The solution is to create incentives to ensure that the NHS is delivering on these valuable trials, he added, which include financial incentives and using the NHS app to actively promote trials to people who could benefit from them based on their health needs.
Newton said he was very interested in the idea of clinical-trial accelerator networks, which would “preload” clinical trial populations in priority areas to enable trials to happen faster. “If we want our studies to reflect the populations that live in our countries, we need to make sure we get studies that have a broad range of patients within them,” he added. McIntosh explained that while it made sense to focus on a few areas using accelerator networks, the NHS needs to be given the capacity to implement them.
The panellists agreed that the UK had a strong base in life sciences and could thrive with the right policies in place. Paul Blakeley highlighted some of the broader policies that enable the life sciences sector to thrive, such as access to capital, planning, transport and infrastructure. “I’m very positive about the future for life sciences in the UK,” said Newton.
This piece was written independently following the panel discussion, which was sponsored by Novavax and Jazz Pharmaceuticals.
[See also: Strengthening the UK’s clinical trial ecosystem]