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Turning the Life Sciences Vision into reality

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK
by Michelle Mitchell | Opinion

9 July 2021

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Michelle Mitchell

Cancer is one of the greatest global challenges.

No one organisation, sector or even country can solve it alone. Just like what we’ve seen with the pandemic, global collaboration and proper investment are what’s needed to drive progress in cancer too.

It’s been a terrible year. But even in the worst times, there are silver linings. Some are even predicting that we may be on the cusp of the ‘biological century’, moving into a new, advanced era of healthcare. And now, more than ever, science is widely seen as our exit strategy from the pandemic – our route back to some normality. And rightly so.

The UK Government seems to agree, and their Life Sciences Vision published this week sets a clear target for increasing their investment in R&D and supporting UK life sciences. At Cancer Research UK, we support this ambition, and I was pleased to be part of a working group recently which oversaw this Life Sciences Vision. So here’s my perspective on what that means for cancer.

A focus on cancer

It’s encouraging to see cancer listed as a top priority in the Vision – something I strongly pushed for. We can’t let cancer slip down the priority list through the pandemic. About 1000 people are diagnosed with cancer every day in the UK, and although we’ve seen improvements in survival, progress wasn’t rapid enough even before the pandemic. Between April 2020 and March 2021, we estimate that nearly 45,000 fewer patients started cancer treatment compared to the same time pre-pandemic, so we cannot risk losing ground.

In terms of research itself, the Life Sciences Vision backs up the case we have been making for early detection of cancer and early intervention, which will be vital to bringing change for cancer patients. It has been a challenging field, as researchers strive to understand cancer risk and find ways to detect cancer before symptoms appear. But the progress we will make will be worth it, and extra support like incentives for industry and investors is part of the solution, as well as speeding up the adoption of new early detection technology.

Collaboration is key

That Life Sciences Vision working group included Government, academia, industry and medical research charities like Cancer Research UK. To make progress at the pace we want, all four of our sectors must be working together, to a common goal.

A few months ago, the last Secretary of State spoke about the ‘Holy Trinity’ for life sciences – academia, industry and Government. But that’s an incomplete list. The UK life sciences sector is strong because of the involvement of charities, and it would have been a mistake not to include us. We’re a critical partner on this.

Cancer Research UK alone funds roughly half of all cancer-related research in the UK, and our spinouts have secured a total of £2.3 billion of external investment. There’s no way of reaching the Government’s own target of 2.4% of UK GDP spent on research and development without medical research charities.

So, as we move forward into delivering this Vision, we hope the new Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, has a quartet in mind instead of a holy trinity.

Next step: investment

We’ve seen some very positive announcements over the last few months. The Life Sciences Vision. An ambition to reach £22bn of governmental spending on research and development. The first ever bilateral UK-US summit on cancer and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which aims to fund high risk/high reward research.

But what we haven’t yet seen is investment.

We know the economic situation is tight – and the Treasury has a difficult job on its hands as the UK recovers from the pandemic. As the Government recognises, life sciences is one area where the UK can truly lead the world – and we can’t do that without investment. The key test of whether this is a true priority for the Government is November’s Spending Review, when they’ll outline their spending priorities for the next year.

The proposed Life Sciences Investment Programme will be a welcome boost to science companies in the UK. But success also means investment in clinical research capacity. For example, we need to support the research career pathways accessible to NHS staff, fund research infrastructure, and target disparities in research activity around the country.

In the wake of scientific success against COVID and commitments to the future of the life sciences, we must grasp the opportunity to come together across sectors and pool our expertise. The ambition is there; the scientific foundations are in place and we have the political will.

If the Government backs this up with the necessary investment, the sky is the limit.