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Life sciences are for growth, not just for Christmas

by Dan Bridge | Analysis

7 December 2011

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Science Is Vital protest

The Science Is Vital campaign - which we supported - march on Downing St in 2010

Much like a child counting down the days to Christmas, the life sciences community had been eagerly awaiting Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech earlier this week, setting out how the government would be supporting the UK’s £50bn UK life sciences industry.

As the largest spender of publicly fundraised money – last year we spent £332 million on research to benefit cancer patients – Cancer Research UK has played a key role in the discussions on much of the government’s work in supporting the life sciences.

Over the past year the pressing need to transform the UK’s medical research environment has been discussed in several key reports, and subject to some important Government commitments:

  • In January, the Academy of Medical Sciences recommended reforms to the regulation of clinical research
  • In March the Budget and Plan for Growth outlined Government commitments to take forward the Academy’s recommendations
  • Throughout the year the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill has provided an opportunity to embed clinical research in the new NHS structures
  • In September we published our report on the Ideal Environment for Medical Research
  • Last week’s Autumn statement contained commitments to extra funding for science.

These commitments came on the back of the decision, at the end of 2010, to protect the science budget from cuts, all in all adding up to a positive desire from Government to ensure that the UK has a thriving medical research sector.

What did the Prime Minister bring to the life sciences party?

The Prime Minster drew together all of these announcements into one strategy, and threw in a few extras too. This strategy was informed by the publication of two key policy documents:

We posted on Monday, about which of the Prime Minister’s announcements would directly benefit our work, and improve things for patients in the UK.

The proposal to conditionally approve drugs could potentially set the UK’s treatment regulation apart from the rest of the world. If Government can get this policy working right, patients could gain quicker access to treatments that have been identified early on in their development cycle as beneficial to specific patient groups.

The consultation on the use of patient data will hopefully allow for an informed dialogue with patients on these issues, leading to clearer processes being in place for researchers.

Analysing patient’s records has helped us understand the causes of cancer, including how to prevent the disease and diagnose it at an earlier stage when treatment is more likely to be successful. The UK Clinical Research Collaboration (of which Cancer Research UK is a member) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) recently published this leaflet outlining how data can be used in research, and the safeguards that are currently in place.

David Cameron’s announcement was that the Government would be consulting on a system to formally allow patients to opt-out of allowing their data to be used in research studies. This provides an opportunity to explore putting in place a structure that gives patients a more informed choice whilst stimulating research that may benefit them.

Is this funding for science simply a stocking filler?

We’ve welcomed several of yesterday’s announcements, and announcements earlier in the year, on the basis that they represent reforms to medical research that don’t require large amounts of money to implement. However, there were some announcements of initiatives with funding that we were also pleased about:

  • David Cameron announced an £180 million catalyst fund, that will help new technologies to receive the start up funding that will help them be commercialised and developed into new treatments.
  • AstraZeneca is offering the Medical Research Council (MRC) access to drug compounds that it had shelved. The MRC is providing £10 million to develop and exploit these into possible new treatments.
  • Working with Biomedical Research organisations in Cambridge, Oxford, London and Leicester, the NIHR are investing £2.5m this year into a UK Bioresource. This will help companies to recruit patients for stratified experimental medicine studies.

Does the Government have life sciences wrapped up?

If 2011 was the year for announcements, then 2012 will herald the start of intense activity from across the research community, including Cancer Research UK, to make these announcements a reality. Committing to these measures is only the beginning.

The new Health Research Authority, which promises to streamline regulation of medical research studies, was first announced in March this year, and started operating this month. But it has only taken on some regulatory functions, there is still much more for it do, so 2012 will see the further development of the role of this body.

The Health and Social Care Bill will continue its progress through Parliament and is expected to be passed into legislation early next year. Working out how the provisions of the Bill will translate to day-to-day practices within the NHS will be an important focus for everyone with an interest in health research.

The announcement to consult on an early access scheme at the start of next year means that this is  still some way off becoming a reality for cancer patients, and we will therefore be working hard to ensure that quick progress is made on this.

There is also further policy development to come from the Department of Health on a scheme for “Value Based Pricing” (which we’ll be posting about very shortly), and it’ll be important to see how this all links together to provide cancer patients with the best possible access to treatments.

The government’s announcements won’t stop here, and by the end of this year we’re expecting the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to publish its Research and Innovation Strategy. This will detail how the university and academic sector will work with other research organisations to support the UK economy.

It’s been good news that the government has gone from being quiet on science in opposition to a strong and vocal advocate for the UK’s strength in research and the potential for growth it possesses. Government has an almost unique relationship to the sector, as it invests in basic research, regulates the development of treatments, and then becomes the sole purchaser of the resulting medicine or technology through the NHS.

We are delighted that there has been such a focus on the life sciences, and especially the recognition that medical research charities such as Cancer Research UK have such a key role to play.

But the focus should not stop now, we need to continue to have a strong commitment from Government to drive these measures forward, and to continue to listen to the sector.