MPs hear from experts in first evidence session of “Valley of Death” enquiry

Posted on April 30, 2012 by

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On the 18 April, the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee heard evidence from bioscience experts on the barriers that are preventing technologies being translated from initial research stage to market (the so-called “Valley of Death“). They covered the strengths and weaknesses of UK bioscience; the role of government, multinational pharma and the NHS in facilitating innovation; and asked what could be done differently to promote greater commercialisation of British research – including the potential role of the NHS as a powerhouse for research. There was a lot said in the two hour session, so I’ve just tried to pull together all the bits relevent to medical research.

Background

If the life sciences is going to deliver better healthcare for patients and be a growth area for the UK economy, we have to get better at translating basic research into commercial applications, i.e. things we can make and sell and can help patients, like new drugs and treatments. At the moment there are barriers to this translation process, with a lack of funding to drive ideas through.

David Cameron referred to this “Valley of Death” and announced government measures to tackle this when he launched the life sciences strategy on 5 December. The committee’s inquiry was launched later that month to look at how the government and other organisations can improve the commercialisation of research.

What did the experts say about medical research?

There were two sessions of evidence on the Wednesday morning, the second sitting featured five experts in the life sciences:

  • Dr Ian Tomlinson, senior vice president, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Dr David Tapolczay, chief executive officer, Medical Research Council Technology,
  • Dr Gareth Goodier, chairman, Shelford Group,
  • Dr Andy Richards, biotechnology entrepreneur and business angel
  • Dr Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer, Wellcome Trust

The chair, Andrew Miller MP, kicked things off by asking what makes the UK so good at life sciences. The panel all agreed with the previous session’s panel that successful innovation comes from clusters – geographic areas where academia and big and small industry sit side by side. Cambridge in England is one example and Cambridge in Massachusetts, USA, is another. These allow individuals to hop in and out of different jobs and take the risks that are required to truly innovate in small start-ups. The UK has long-established research strongholds and a well-trained workforce that make it a world-leader. According to Dr Tomlinson, places that bring scientists together, like the Stevenage Biomedical Catalyst research park, are “like the canteen at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where a lot of these Nobel prizes came from in Cambridge”.

Dr Richards described the logic behind big pharmaceutical companies investing in research parks that bring in other small biotech firms, like GSK have done in Stevenage. He said that the pharmaceutical industry is moving to an open innovation R&D strategy as more and more (currently about 50%) of their drugs come from small biotechs. A “diverse and dynamic ecosystem” allows for natural selection to drive innovation he said. Dr Bianco added that the Wellcome Trust’s involvement in Stevenage meant that the project would be viewed with neutrality from the outside, making it more attractive to smaller firms.

Dr Tapolczay said that he hopes the Francis Crick Institute will be a huge draw for big pharma to come to the UK as it shows our commitment to basic biomedical research. The facility, funded by Cancer Research UK, MRC and the Wellcome Trust, along with other partners, will create a talent pool of great scientists, great innovation and the entrepreneurs that companies like GSK need, the enquiry heard.

Stephen Mosley MP moved the discussion on to the NHS, asking how such a large purchaser influences innovation. Dr Richards said that the “NHS does not take up… new drugs, new technologies, new software systems, new anything”. This makes it incredibly hard to find investment for new technologies that the NHS will be the main market for. Dr Goodier added that the poor IT systems in the service impeded research. The expert panel expressed frustration that the NHS isn’t the powerhouse for research that it could be, with Dr Richards saying “if we can gather the information from well collated records… we have everything in place and if we could do it, it would be the big game change”.

At the end of the session Roger Williams MP asked the panel if EU regulations hampered investment. Surprisingly, no-one had any complaints bar a brief mention of employment law.

What does this mean for medical research charities?

It’s interesting to hear the director of GSK talk about how the old mass-industrial approach to drug development was wrong and stifled innovation. Like the new industry strategy of bringing diversity back into drug development using small out-of-house biotechs, charities too create a diverse ecosystem that allows a range of approaches to be tried and tested. As Dr Bianco told the Committee, charities like Wellcome are in a powerful position to support R&D before it reaches the stage at which private investors can be sure of the idea’s commercial viability.

The experts also highlighted some of the issues in the NHS that AMRC is currently looking at. Efforts are already underway to improve access to the wealth of data that the NHS holds. We are specifically working on the use of data in research by exploring how to raise public awareness of its value and hosting a data-themed summer reception in parliament, at which you can help us demonstrate the power of data to parliamentarians. We are also looking at how research is conducted in the NHS and where research is hindered, and feeding into discussions about how the NHS can be a driver of innovation, through its purchasing power for example.

Charity’s want to see their research turned into treatments that help patients. We are concerned about promising drugs falling into the “Valley of Death” and charities are engaged – as described by Dr Bianco – in tackling some of the problems highlighted in this enquiry.

What will happen next?

AMRC has submitted written evidence to the enquiry in which we expressed the sector’s concern that research does not get stuck but is translated into new therapies and pointed to positive steps that the charities are already taking to address these challenges and approaches the government could consider. You can read it here.

This is now the second phase of the science and technology committee’s inquiry where they invite experts into parliament to question. There are more of these evidence sessions to come as the committee is looking at the whole of UK science and technology, not just the life sciences. We’ll be following the enquiry’s progress and look forward to reading the final report.

Posted in: Policy