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Strengthening the UK’s clinical trial ecosystem

Why pharmaceutical companies play a role in driving progress.

By Simon Newton

The UK is highly regarded as a global leader in life science research and development (R&D) and is home to an industry that has made enormous strides in transforming medicines and improving patient care. Institutions, including the NHS, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), alongside world-leading research charities form a strong foundation for the UK’s ambition to remain a global leader in R&D.

As a board member of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and vice-chair of the Small Companies Forum, I recognise that there remains significant opportunity for reform and improvement across the R&D and clinical trial landscape in the UK to bring about enhanced outcomes for patients.

In 2022, the global pharmaceutical industry reached the same levels of investment, regulatory approvals and clinical trial activity as seen before the Covid-19 pandemic. This rebound is no small feat, and it represents a significant achievement for the industry given the complex challenges the global clinical ecosystem faced as the world returned to normal. And yet, there are still areas where progress and improvements in clinical trials are lacking. According to an independent report by Lord O’Shaughnessy, only 28,000 patients were recruited into pharmaceutical company sponsored clinical trials in the UK in 2022-23, down from 50,000 in 2017-18, compared to over one million patients recruited into non-commercially sponsored clinical trials – those run by the NHS or academic institutions – in the same period.

There is a clear need for more pharmaceutical company sponsored clinical trials in the UK. For patients, these trials often represent one of the few opportunities to gain early access to potentially life-changing treatments, especially for those with limited treatment options and those living with rare diseases. For example, according to Blood Cancer UK, many patients with blood cancer in the UK rely on clinical trials as the only opportunity to gain access to new treatments, despite 40 per cent of the treatments reimbursed as part of the UK Cancer Drugs Fund being for blood cancers.

Jazz Pharmaceuticals is proud of its long-standing commitment to the UK, home to a significant proportion of our operations established over the past two decades, and we want to build the case for continued investment and clinical trial activity in the UK, and ultimately more patients benefiting from new treatments which could potentially address unmet medical needs.

We, therefore, support the ABPI’s commitment to work closely with Lord O’Shaughnessy to progress the call for a four-fold increase in pharmaceutical company sponsored clinical trial activity in the UK by 2027, and the recommendation to establish Clinical Trial Acceleration Networks (CTANs) to enable the UK to deliver best-in-world clinical trial services. These types of initiatives are essential in driving innovation in, and incentivisation for, clinical trials in the UK, by providing additional resources for trials, expediting approval processes, and overcoming challenges to patient recruitment and diversity in trials. This can help to better reflect the actual patient population that are likely to use the medicinal product investigated, as reflected in the ABPI’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy.

The potential benefits to patients from improving equality, diversity and inclusion are well established. A report by MedCity, the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust found a focus on these metrics in clinical trials produced more robust clinical data, and more clearly demonstrated the universal benefit of a treatment and its differential effect in different communities.

This is something we are passionate about. We are working hard to enhance diversity in our clinical trial activity, through efforts such as supporting digital ethnographic research to help improve the treatment of diseases and encouraging clinical trial eligibility screening to be part of routine care. We believe these actions will help increase clinical trial enrolment of more diverse patient groups, better reflecting the wider patient population and helping bring new treatments to patients.

While there are challenges facing the UK life sciences sector, there remain significant opportunities to reverse the downward trend in R&D activity and improve the quality, diversity and enrolment in clinical trials. The government’s focus on the industry and these challenges is welcome, but swift action is needed to ensure the UK remains a global leader in life sciences R&D. Realising the full potential of R&D and clinical trials in the UK will rely on greater collaboration between industry, the NHS and the government, which will ultimately deliver improved health outcomes for patients in the UK and help attract global investment.

This article has been written and funded by Jazz Pharmaceuticals.

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