Where there's life

The last few weeks seem to have developed rather a biological, or life sciences, theme. The other Wednesday I attended a meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology which discussed whether it was possible to put a value on biodiversity.  I won’t pretend to summarise the lectures or discussion - available soon through the Foundation’s website - but it did bring home to me the complexity of the biosphere that we are part, of and how little we understand the inter-relationships within.

During the same week I met with members of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) - and also, which made a real impression on me, attended the launch of the Government’s response to the refresh of the Biosciences Innovation and Growth Team Report. 

It started well, if early, with many of the companies and different parts of Government which had contributed to the IGT report gathering for coffee and bacon butties in BERR’s subterranean conference centre.  Lord Mandelson introduced the response and declared support for the biotechnology sector under his “industrial activism” agenda. Then David Cooksey, who had chaired both the original Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team and this refresh, responded fairly robustly: "When you strip away the veneer of this report, you find that there is very little new in it. It is disappointing. We began discussing this issue in 2003 and in the six years since there has been lots of talking, but in terms of change, there has been relatively little."   

There followed what the Independent journalist (the only one there I think) noted in his report – a display of real frustration on the side of the industry figures and a slightly surprised attention from the Government side. As they unpacked the problems, there seemed to be three issues that people believed were important. The first was the regulatory framework under which new treatments had to be tested. This framework seems to vary globally and it was stated that the UK had one of the strictest regimes. The counter-argument to that was that treatments have to be globally applied and that “competitive” countries such as the USA and Singapore operate under the same global regulations. I am not sure this aspect was fully explored, because the subject of money was raised. 

There were two schools of thought on money. The first was that we needed to support the establishment of more companies in this area, funding spin-outs from universities and larger companies.  The second was that the costs of progression were almost exponential, about £2m for first stage trials and up to £30m for second stage trials, and therefore money should be invested into later stage companies to get them through this (very high) barrier. It wasn’t that the companies wanted full financial support from the Government, but an indication of support that would give both companies and potential investors confidence that the UK wanted an industry in this area.  Unfortunately, Lord Mandelson had to leave at this point and the debate largely died down.

What really piqued my interest was that the Technology Strategy Board was mentioned on both sides of the debate – that we had invested too little in the past and that we were about to unveil several life science initiatives in the near future. 

Let’s tackle the history first. Since its inception in 2004 the Technology Strategy Board has run six collaborative research and development competitions around the life sciences area – totalling just over £64m of grant aid. Although some of these seem to have been well targeted and attracted a good response from the community they were intended to support, other competitions have been undersubscribed and have not invested their intended support levels. For us the question has been whether we were trying to invest in the right areas and/or whether we were using the right mechanism to provide the support. 

Over the same period, we have launched the Assisted Living and, more recently, the Detection and Identification of Infectious Agents Innovation Platforms – both jointly with the Department of Health, and the latter also with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Both of these have a significant life science element, but are more about providing a pull from the developing markets to bring together the life science components (such as diagnosis, clinical understanding and therapies) with the physical and engineering science components (such as communications, analysis algorithms and systems engineering) and the design and user centric aspects that determine whether they will work. 

We have learnt a lot in our first 22 months of existence and one thing vital to long term success, we realise, is to rigorously define what the problem is and what the barriers are.  I suspect we may be frustrating some who are impatient for us to give out money and let them get on with it, but we are acutely aware that once rolling, these programmes acquire a life of their own. 

So, what are we planning? I should point out that our plans are reflected in our ongoing development activities and that many already know what we are aiming for. 

We have been working with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industries, most of the major pharmaceutical companies themselves, the Medical Research Council and the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research on exploring the potential to develop an Innovation Platform in Stratified Medicine.  By this we mean “the tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics of each patient. It does not literally mean the creation of drugs or medical devices that are unique to a patient, but rather the ability to classify individuals into subpopulations that differ in their susceptibility to a particular disease or their response to a specific treatment.  Preventive or therapeutic interventions can then be concentrated on those who will benefit, sparing expense and side effects for those who will not.”

To achieve the potential of this tailoring of treatment to patient and disease, and provision of exactly the right therapy accordingly, requires a profound understanding of the underlying biology of all the systems and so, like many of our Innovation Platforms, brings together a wide range of capabilities. We have – jointly – been building our understanding of the science, the technology, the sociology and psychology and all the different aspects of the potential solution, so that we address the barriers in a logical order that builds towards it as effectively as possible.

We have also identified “regenerative medicine” as an area to support, but for a different reason. This will impact on our health over a longer timescale than stratified medicine but is facing a difficult stage in its development, both as an area of activity and as the community of companies and universities that are developing much of the underlying science. What we are trying to develop is a basket of support activities that will help both the individual companies and the overall community and which will start to embed its principles in clinical thinking so that uptake is measured and effective.  We have held several workshops with companies and academics working in this area to work out what we have done in the past that worked and what was less effective, and what we might do in future to make a real difference.

We will be publishing our Medicines and Healthcare and Biosciences strategies over this coming summer.  They are based on the consultations we have been carrying out since we started in July 2007. They represent our understanding of the potential and challenges of areas that are a vital part both of our lives (as patients) and our economy. 

These new activities represent a significant scaling up of our activities in the life sciences area.  We are working with many organisations with a track record of success in this area to make sure our activity is additional and effective. I firmly believe that, to complete the saying that forms the title of his post, “there’s hope.”


Last updated on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 22:10

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