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With the UK maintaining a world-leading position in key areas of technology, 2021 could be a banner year for its life sciences.
While the UK’s final signing of a Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the European Union at the end of last year brought some relief to the country’s life sciences sector—which, like many other sectors, was eyeing the prospect of a “no-deal” scenario with increasing anxiety—the EU will also be pleased to have eliminated some of the barriers to trade and cooperation with the UK, especially in those areas where the country is blazing a technological trail.
At the top of this list is genomics. Speaking to Pharm Exec, Laura Barrell, senior associate in VWV’s pharmaceuticals and life sciences team, commented, “There’s no doubt that the UK is leading in terms of genomics, particularly in relation to the use of genomic interpretation and analysis for patient benefit in the healthcare pathway as part of mainstream care.” She points to the UK’s launch of the Genomic Medicine Service and the successful sequencing of 100,000 genomes by Genomics England, which has committed to expanding its research and data services to oncology as well as rare diseases. In the recent Genome UK report, the government also underlined its commitment to the continuation of the UK as a world leader in genomics.
Barrell notes that the UK is also forging ahead in the use of AI, clinical research platforms, and automation “to help streamline workflows and reduce timeframes, both in relation to clinical development and commercialization.” This is echoed by Colin Roberts, venture development director at BioCity, the UK’s largest science incubator, who says, “I think the UK is very well placed in terms of the whole confluence between biopharma data and medical data and the computational science that will allow that kind of ever-increasing crossover to continue.”
Not unexpectedly, the UK’s agreement with the EU does not eradicate all the feared Brexit sticking points. As Fieldfisher’s Cliodhna McDonough noted in an online Pharm Exec article following the TCA signing, “While some of the new requirements are straightforward, some are complex and may be difficult to interpret for a specific set of circumstances.” Barrell explains that the new points-based immigration system and “increased administrative burden” will make it more difficult for UK companies to bring in talent from EU member states than under the previous, free-movement-of-people approach. But she adds, “There is also a great sense of confidence in the homegrown talent we have in the UK.” In addition, “The move from a Euro-centric approach to an international one…could see the UK involved in more international programs which may have been previously denied to the country.”
Roberts says that BioCity has actually seen an increase in inquiries from investors in Europe looking to maintain access into the UK market. “We thought that 2018 was going to be the marquee year in terms of the private investment in the UK life sciences businesses, but 2020 has blown that out of the water and that’s a surprise to me.” He adds, “A certain amount of this is COVID related, but not very much.”
COVID, of course, has played a well-acknowledged role in the UK’s technology journey over the last year, as it has in many western countries. For Barrell, it has shown “two very important things related to the NHS: 1, how vital the system is…and 2, how the adaptation of technology has a crucial role in the future of healthcare.” The “shining example” of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine did not come from technology developed from scratch;rather, that technology was the result of years of R&D. She explains, “The fundamental aspect is that this technology was so adaptable, particularly for COVID, that it could be manipulated and its focus changed to COVID-19 specifically at record speed.”
While Barrell states that VWV would like to see greater funding for life sciences, preferential immigration status for those seeking to work in the sector, and government support to ensure technology can be commercialized and adapted to benefit patients quickly, she concludes that “we feel there is a bright future for life sciences in the UK.” Roberts shares concerns about uncertainties stemming from Brexit, but he observes that there is “a real structural strength to the industry in the UK at the moment.” He adds, “To be frank, I think it’s in a golden year.”
Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.