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How UK life science can win the global race


Professor Sir John Bell

Author of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Report.

The UK is already one of the leaders in the global life science race. The £64bn turnover sector employs over 223,000 scientists and staff. Its current high growth rate is forecast to exceed that of the economy as a whole in the next 50 years.

We already do life sciences well, but the UK also has a unique advantage – the NHS.

Working together, the Department of Health, the NHS and the life sciences sector, can achieve major changes.

We are already seeing moves towards this, and if we continue to develop this mindset in the future, with more collaboration and the adoption of innovation we can deliver better health services, make the UK health care system more effective and save money.

On the way, however, there are opportunities and challenges. The NHS, being a single system, provides life scientists with access to huge amounts of data that can deliver unique insights. No other country has this advantage. Meanwhile the NHS’s robust approach to assessing the economic value of drugs and medical devices, delivered by NICE, reveals what works and what doesn’t. In this respect, the UK is a world-beater.

However, lack of investment in the healthcare system means advances are often adopted slowly and in a patchy fashion.

For academia, the challenges include finding ways to collaborate with industry while maintaining its mission to discover new products, pathways and targets. Most collaborations between academic researchers and industry work without perverting the academic mission. The challenge is to further these initiatives while maintaining that integrity.

The UK’s expertise in life sciences also contributes to global health. We are ahead of the global game in academic discovery, and we have some of the world’s best research programmes and institutions. Commercially, the UK is particularly strong in vaccines and antiretrovirals.

Our expertise leads to innovations that result in better health outcomes, and our global sales success  means the industry contributes substantially to the UK economy through taxes and employment.

For patients, most of the uplift in outcomes is a result of innovations in the last 50 years. New antibiotics, surgical procedures, the discovery of drugs such as statins and new cancer medicines bring huge benefits for patients and have undoubtedly contributed to the UK increase in life expectancy of eight to nine years.

Currently the UK is a front runner in the global life science race – but how do we remain competitive in a sector where the world’s biggest economies, and some of the emerging nations too, are all fighting for a place in the race?

To meet this challenge, the UK life science’s ability to run fast is not enough. To win in the future,  we must run faster.

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