Margareta Pagano: Lessons from Darwin - how life sciences are evolving for the better

Links between academia, business and the Government are making sure Britain is kept at the forefront of a vital industry
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If there is one industry where the Coalition can take credit for a genuinely original approach to business, it's the life sciences. It's a field in which the UK has always been ahead of the game – from Charles Darwin to Frederick Sanger, the biochemist who developed the method used to sequence the human genome. They have given us a rich legacy: 4,500 companies employing nearly 200,000 in the pharmaceuticals and medical biotechnology sectors with a turnover of £50bn.

Life sciences are growing fast, but they are also going through a transformation. The death of blockbuster drugs and the birth of new generic products mean research and development (R&D) has shifted out of big pharma companies into smaller partners. At the same time, medicine is exploding with discoveries such as genetically tailored drugs as well as sophisticated devices delivering treatments.

Such changes are turning the business model upside-down. If you need an example of how quickly, look back to the closure nearly two years ago of big plants run by Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

That's why David Cameron, supported by David Willetts, the relevant minister, and the Government's life science advisers – Sir John Bell, professor of medical sciences at Oxford, Chris Brinsmead and George Freeman – decided to think big with their life science strategy launched this time last year. They put in place a plan bringing together academia, industry and the National Health Service to bridge what's called the "valley of death" – the gap between the bench and the clinic – to leapfrog to the next stage of translational medicine. In a parallel approach, the NHS launched its Innovation, Health and Wealth initiative designed to open up the NHS – and its massive clinical bank of data – to innovation. Put together, these two moves show that the Coalition understands the sector; supporting economic growth but also improved patient outcomes; revolutionary as well as evolutionary.

A year on and the signs are looking good. Key to their policy was making sure there is enough finance to back the entrepreneurs; making sure the fittest survive, if you will. About £1bn of new private sector investment has come into the UK from overseas companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Novartis. UK Trade & Investment has a new Life Science Investment Organisation, and this week launched a global campaign to attract even more overseas investors to the UK. Around 10 per cent of the world's pharma R&D funding is already in the UK – seen as a launchpad into Europe, as it is still the biggest market for advanced medicines – but we want more. Tax incentives, such as the new patent box, come into force next year, while angels are also being offered new tax breaks. Government has been generous with money too, topping up with another £100m announced last week by Cameron in Cambridge for pioneering genomics to be used by the NHS to sequence the entire genome of up to 100,000 patients for work on more specific diseases. There's been a further £600m for other research such as synthetic biology.

As well improving healthcare and growth, there's another even more exciting long-term consequence; more jobs for the next generation. If the cutting-edge work of scientists such as Sanger and Bell is to be continued, we'll need more geneticists and genomic technologists. It's important that the wider public understands what is going on at the grass roots so that parents and schools are ready to encourage their young to look at the life sciences for future careers.

There are still big challenges – worries over patient data privacy for one – but this is thrilling new-frontier stuff where we have a serious chance of keeping ahead of the pack. Even the most tribal of right-wingers would agree that an industrial strategy like this is no bad thing, while those on the left must be gritting their teeth as they watch the Coalition stealing their genes. That's Darwinism in action for you.

Panter's king of pantos

Even Priscilla Presley was stunned by the numbers who flocked to see her as the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, her debut pantomime at the New Wimbledon Theatre. But Ms Presley shouldn't have been surprised as pantomime is bigger business than ever this year with record numbers attending the 10 pantos being put on by Howard Panter, boss of Ambassador Theatre Group, the UK's biggest theatre group with 39 venues. Mr Panter says more than half a million people have booked and predicts revenues of nearly £10m from the panto season. Mr Panter is buying theatres down Under, where audiences are not quite ready for British panto, he says. Oh yes they are!

Bailey must have some bite

Talking of Queens, if I were Andrew Bailey, head of the Prudential Regulatory Authority, which takes over regulating the banks next spring, I would pin a picture of Queen Elizabeth above my desk. The Queen asked the question everyone wanted answered after the Great Financial Crash: "Why had nobody seen it coming?" Sujit Kapadia, a Bank economist, had a go at answering her question during her tour of the Bank's bullion vaults last week. The Queen got it in one: "People had got a bit... lax, had they? The Financial Services, what do they call themselves, the regulators, Authority, it didn't have any teeth." As Mr Bailey will know, he needs to sharpen his teeth.