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How to turn the life sciences “superpower” ambition into reality

Partnership between the NHS, industry and research institutes is crucial to enable the UK to reach its clinical research potential.

By Şeyda Atadan Memiş

For life sciences, a long-standing question has been how to realise the ambition for the UK to become a global “superpower” and deliver on the sector’s potential to drive economic growth. While there has been plenty of discussion among the wider ecosystem on policy and strategy – most visibly rooted in the government’s “Life Sciences Vision” – the focus now needs to shift towards implementation if these ambitions are to be realised.

The life sciences sector has long been viewed as an important sector for growth, jobs and health. It is one of the most valuable sectors in the UK, contributing 18 per cent of all research and development (R&D) investment and 584,000 jobs across the economy. The government and the Labour Party have consistently emphasised their commitments to the sector, most recently in the 2023 Autumn Statement where it was pitched as “critical to the country’s health, wealth and resilience”. This has been backed up by several policy commitments over the past decade to support UK growth and cement the country’s position as a leader in life sciences.

Despite this, indicators show that global confidence has declined in recent years: the UK’s ranking for foreign direct investment dropped from second in 2021 to ninth in 2022 (out of 18 comparator countries), and for late-stage clinical research (Phase III trials) the UK’s position globally fell from fourth to tenth between 2017 and 2021. In order to improve patient outcomes, drive economic growth and realise the UK as a “superpower”, we need to adopt a more holistic approach to the ecosystem – from clinical research to uptake of new medicines – as opposed to viewing elements as different pieces of the puzzle operating in isolation.

To maximise the potential of the life sciences industry and ensure timely patient access to new medicines, there needs to be a strong and symbiotic R&D and commercial environment for innovative sectors to thrive. The 2024 voluntary scheme for branded medicines pricing, access and growth (VPAG) – a deal negotiated between the government and industry to manage the NHS medicines bill – provides an opportunity to bring both commercial and R&D elements together in order to realise shared benefits. One of the key investments included in the new deal will accelerate work on clinical trials, manufacturing and in health technology assessments agencies, encouraging UK economic growth, collaboration and innovation in the sector. Looking ahead, we need to capitalise on the opportunity to build and maintain confidence in the UK as an attractive environment for inward investment, where companies want to conduct clinical research and bring new innovations to market as this will, ultimately, improve health outcomes.

Embedding a “pro-innovation” culture in the NHS could also help to make clinical trials easier to set up and recruit. The O’Shaughnessy Review, published in May 2023, shone a light on the need to act decisively in this area and set out a number of recommendations that the government has committed to implementing in full. It is highly welcome to see the steps that have been taken over the past six months, and the positive early signs of recovery and progress. As we look to the NHS of the future, it is imperative for clinical research to be considered an essential part of healthcare for both staff and patients – this will not only help the sector to unlock health and growth opportunities, but also support the NHS to achieve its ambitions around improving diversity in populations that take part in trials.

This holistic “system-wide” mindset also needs to apply to our regulatory pathways. While it is welcome to see the UK’s increased ability to partner with other nations in order to accelerate approvals and introduce novel pathways, it’s important that this does not contribute to bottlenecks further down the line. For example, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also needs support with increased capacity and resource for its health technology assessments so that the accelerated regulatory approvals can effectively contribute to quicker access to medicines for patients.

Finally, realising greater investment in life sciences can not only help to support growth in the economy, but also help to create jobs for people across the UK. Despite long-standing collaboration between government and industry, there remains a skills gap in the sector that needs to be addressed – in a 2022 sector survey conducted by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), a key concern for half of respondents was around recruitment and retention of experienced staff. The industry has committed to take action, and we remain committed to working alongside policymakers, trade associations and local communities to close the gap by addressing areas such as increasing the provision of apprenticeship training. One key area that requires greater focus is increasing diversity within the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) workforce, as this is imperative for reflecting the communities that we serve and improving outcomes for people everywhere.

None of the above can be achieved by any one organisation alone. Due to the inter-woven nature of our life sciences ecosystem, all sides need to come together to work in partnership. Takeda is committed to working with NHS and research institutions across the country, and we are continuing to drive local engagement and activity through initiatives such as the Paddington Life Sciences Partnership, which brings together local NHS leaders, researchers and industry to embrace healthcare innovation. It is only through this spirit of partnership that individual strengths can be brought together to collectively support improvements in the best interests of the NHS and, ultimately, patients.

There is strong consensus on the fact that the life sciences sector presents a huge opportunity for the UK. The foundations are in place and, with continued prioritisation and a clear focus on long-term implementation, the “superpower” ambition is within reach. Now is the time for everyone to work together and ensure the UK can be seen as an engine for growth and a destination for innovation so that life sciences can maximise its contribution to improving the health of the UK.

[See also: Making the UK the prime destination for the life sciences]

This article has been written and funded by Takeda.

Job code: EXA/GB/CORP/0217 December 2023