Optimism for the UK’s Life Sciences Future

February 2, 2021
Julian Upton

Julian Upton is Pharmaceutical Executive's Online and European Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com

Laura Barrell, Senior Associate at VWV, outlines how the UK is emerging from the trials of Brexit and COVID to take a leading international role in the future of pharma and healthcare.

In November last year, the annual PING (Pharmaceutical Industry Network Group) conference, organized by VWV, showcased recent innovations in the UK life sciences sector. Speaking to Pharm Exec, Laura Barrell, Senior Associate at VWV, outlines how the UK is emerging from the trials of Brexit and COVID to take a leading international role in the future of pharma and healthcare.

Pharm Exec: In which technology areas would you say the UK is leading the life sciences sector at the current time?

Laura Barrell: There is 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. This is evident by the UK's launch of the Genomic Medicine Service, as well as the successful completion of the 100,000 genomes project by Genomics England and commitment to expand its research and genomic data services to the area of oncology as well as rare diseases. This was further cemented in the recent Genome UK report, which highlighted the current government’s commitment to genomics and continuation of the UK as a world leader in this fascinating and potentially life-saving form of technology.

We also see the UK leading in the use of AI, clinical research platforms and automation to help streamline workflows and reduce time frames both in relation to clinical development and commercialization. This will be fundamental if the life sciences sector in the UK is to continue to be at the forefront. One recent example from a key speaker at last year’s PING Conference is Congenica securing $50m during their latest Series C funding round for its Advance Genomics Clinical Decision Support Platform. We heard Dr. Nick Lench speak at the PING Conference 2020 about the amazing work which Congenica is doing to help the NHS, Genomics England and pharma companies around the globe interpret genomic data which produces a personalized approach to disease management.

This focus on genomics and AI was evident in the Life Science Industrial Strategy (LSIS) which particularly identified that the UK is determined to be a world leader in innovative clinical trial methodology and emerging technologies, such as AI. Although the report is in need of updating, the focus on life sciences and these specialist technologies suggests that the UK will continue to build on its already established reputation of leading in these areas. This is particularly important to show advances in clinical trial recruitment and data analytics, especially through the use of cell and gene therapy research.

This vision is further complimented, as we heard from its CEO, Matthew Durdy, at last year’s PING Conference, by organizations such as the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, which provides world leading facilities to its tenants and therefore attracts innovative and disruptive organizations from around the globe to come to the UK to bring these projects to life. The willingness of the NHS to embrace the reality of the importance of data sharing and collaborations through the creation of the Centre for Improving Data Collaboration at NHSX is also a very strong sign that the UK is leading the way in the use of data analytics, which will help fuel AI, automation and platform delivery/development research in the life sciences sector.

We’re in the midst of pretty turbulent times. What have been and will be the impact on the life science sector’s technological advancement of a) COVID and b) Brexit?

As with all changes, there are both positive and negative outcomes to what has happened in the industry as a result of COVID and Brexit. There is little doubt there is significant concern in the life sciences sector regarding the impact on recruitment and funding, which may be caused by our exit from the EU. The new points system and increased administrative burden on companies seeking to bring in talent from EU Member States will be much more difficult than under the free movement of people embodied by the EU. Despite this, there is also a great sense of confidence in the homegrown talent we have in the UK, both from the companies which train and develop in-house talent and through our renowned educational institutions. The move from a Eurocentric approach to an international one, as the UK opens itself up to the rest of the world, has to be approached with optimism. If done right, with the support needed from the government, it could see the UK involved in more international programs, which may have been previously denied to the country, particularly as a stand-alone party.

The COVID pandemic has shown two very important things related to the NHS: (1) how vital the system is and that it deserves our investment and protection; and (2) how use, and perhaps more importantly, the adaption, of technology has a crucial role in the future of healthcare — not just as we move from a cure to prevention model, but as we seek to develop life-saving medicines, treatment and vaccines at record speed.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is an example of a vaccine that should have taken 10 years to develop being approved in only ten months, which is staggering. However, this vaccine did not involve technology developed from scratch in the last ten months, but as a result of years of research and development. The fundamental aspect here is that the technology was so adaptable, particularly for COVID, that it was able to be manipulated and its focus changed to COVID-19 specifically at record speed. In addition, the UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), approved the vaccine under an emergency authorization procedure that has seen the UK not once, but twice, be the first in the world to approve these new vaccines for COVID-19.

What would you say were the key takeaways from last year’s PING conference?

The main takeaway has to be how the UK is leading the world in the area of genomics, AI, and personalized medicine — not just as an innovative forms of technology that we hope can help patients, but which are helping patients right now. Technology often offers a lot of hope, but time, money, and the general complications of the NHS and its framework can mean innovative technology is prevented from use in the mainstream patient pathway (at least not through urgent adoption in the main). The companies and initiatives we saw at the PING Conference, particularly those such as Congenica, Benevolent AI, the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, and Genomics England, showcased how patients are benefiting from this technology now, or soon will be. To see this technology in action and how it still has so much more to give, can only be viewed with excitement in a time of great uncertainty and trepidation due to Brexit and COVID.

AI is an ever-increasing technological trend that has really optimized the pharmaceutical industry through its ability to enhance R&D, from designing and identifying new molecules to target-based drug validation and discoveries. SOS Ventures’ General Partner Bill Liao together with My Personal Therapeutics’ CEO Laura Towart and Machine Medicine Technologies’ Founder Dr. Jonathan O’Keeffe, stressed how machine learning, feedback, data and collaboration are key in creating breakthroughs in AI, therefore improving the quality of life. It is all about how the best AI start-ups really shape the cause of established businesses as they learn faster, adaptable and able to keep up the pace, especially during COVID-19. Jonathan stated how “drugs are not the answer to CNS disease, but neurotechnology is.” Professor Jackie Hunter from Benevolent AI further spoke at the PING Conference about the AI revolution in drug discovery and how it is all about the 3P’s “platform, people and portfolio” and “uniting advanced AI tools with its vast integrated knowledge graph in order to empower scientists, both in-house and through pharma collaborations, to discover more efficacious medicines faster.”

Aside from Brexit and COVID (if we can put those aside), how do you see the UK’s technology landscape shaping up in the next few years?

We feel there is a bright future for life sciences in the UK. The focus and introduction of genomics and personalized care in mainstream healthcare and the adaption of new technologies to combat both current and new forms of illnesses will be fundamental if we are to protect the NHS, increase its robustness and achieve the aim of a prevention rather than a cure model. For example, if the newborn genomic screening program turns into a reality, those who take part will have their future healthcare plan mapped out for them. This includes preventative measures and regular testing for those conditions that may have become life-long or even terminal conditions, but through early diagnosis or management either never appear or are managed before they turn critical or lethal. Not only is this a benefit to patients but to the overall long term cost burden to the NHS. This is not a new model, pharma companies across the globe have been looking at ways to develop treatments or diagnostic tools that allow for prevention over cure; however, what is different is that this model is to be offered by a mainstream healthcare provider, not an insurer or a corporate entity, at no cost to the general population.

On this basis, we would like to see greater funding for life sciences, preferential immigration status for those seeking to work or be trained in the life sciences sector, as well as support from government bodies and regulators to ensure technology can be both commercialized and adapted at a pace which sees patients benefit quickly and across the board. There are significant issues facing the sector and the bear pit of whose technology is seen, supported, and funded will continue without change. There needs to be a long-term focus on the eventual cost and time saving for the NHS and the economy as a whole where fewer people are admitted to hospital and more people are able to work at full capacity for longer.

More broadly, AI will continue to play an increasing role in pharma and more widely. The application of AI to making use of much more vast data sets will be seen in all forms of treatments, particularly genomic data and clinical data. Although Brexit has been and gone, its effects remain in terms of how the UK plots its future. For example, what will be the UK’s future for monitoring falsified medicines now that it is outside of the EU’s Falsified Medicines Directive? We are hoping for some indication soon with the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, which we are watching carefully, as it will be key to the UK’s life sciences future.

Laura Barrell (lbarrell@vwv.co.uk) is Senior Associate at VWV.

Visit VWV’s pharma sector webpage here.