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In partnership withGREAT Britain & Northern Ireland

Investing in life

sciences R&D by design

To be bigger, bolder, and faster, the UK is focusing on collaboration, funding, and world-class research institutions to lead innovation.

Repairing a human liver using lab-grown cells. Using oral antibiotics to treat cystic fibrosis patients. Producing a single-dose treatment for breast cancer that’s proving highly effective. Predicting cancer with AI. All of this innovation came out of the UK life sciences industry.

“It's really the only industry that can both improve the health of your population and, therefore, their productivity,” says George Freeman, the UK’s Minister of State in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Before being elected to Parliament, Freeman had a 15-year career in the life sciences sector. During that time, he worked with hospitals, clinical researchers, patient groups, and biomedical research companies to pioneer novel healthcare innovations.

Issues facing the global community have also spurred innovation in life sciences. Research in areas like agriculture technology and virology could help address some of the challenges wrought by climate change, which, as Freeman asserts, directly contribute to global instability. “The big flashpoints geopolitically in the next few years are probably going to be around water, food, pandemics, energy.”

And the industry has had other measurable results. Turnover in the UK’s life sciences industry jumped from £63.5 billion in 2016 to £94.2 billion in 2021.

“The big flashpoints geopolitically in the next few years are probably going to be around water, food, pandemics, energy.” - George Freeman, Minister of State, UK Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology

Guided by proven expertise and academic excellence

With two of the top five universities for biological sciences in the world — the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford — the UK has a solid foundation for investment in life science innovation. “We have really deep science that you can't buy off the shelf,” Freeman says.

Academic Excellence in Life Sciences

Times Higher Education World University Rankings (2021) for Life Sciences

Compiled by MIT Technology Review Insights based on data from Times Higher Education.

As an example, Freeman points to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, which has 24 Nobel prizes shared among its researchers and alumni in chemistry, and medicine and physiology. In the area of chemistry, the MRC Laboratory has more Nobel prizes than the entire country of France. “Those kinds of labs don't just suddenly appear; they are incubated through layers of great science over years,” Freeman says.

The UK has also long been home to a strong pharmaceutical industry. For example, GlaxoSmithKline can trace its history in the UK back to 1715 and it now has nine manufacturing sites there. And AstraZeneca, which was formed after a merger between British and Swedish companies in 1999, bases its global headquarters in Cambridge. “We’ve had some big pharmaceutical companies here, and they’ve stayed here,” Freeman comments, pointing to the expertise this alone has incubated in the UK.

The National Health Service leads the way

Another factor that has enabled the UK to emerge as a leader in life sciences R&D is the National Health Service (NHS), one of the world’s first universal healthcare systems. Dr. Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, says, “If you’re going to do longitudinal large-scale studies, following patients over time with repeated monitoring of diseases, risk factors or health outcomes, then you need a healthcare system that can enable you to access all the relevant information and recall patients.”

Such studies undertaken by the NHS have focused on issues like long covid and cognition in people over 50 years of age. “These studies are very much a partnership with the patient, scientists, and clinicians,” says Wilson. However, the institutions supporting life sciences R&D in the UK do not co-exist in a vacuum. There is “a good track record of collaboration across the different sectors,” Wilson says. “Within life sciences, there is porosity between academia, commercial, NHS, that really helps our R&D succeed and deliver.”

“Within life sciences, there is porosity between academia, commercial, NHS, that really helps our R&D succeed and deliver.” - Dr. Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Deliberate collaboration for cutting-edge research

This collaboration is backed up by investment from both the government, as well as the charity sector. One such charitable global health foundation, the Wellcome Trust, announced in early 2022 that it would invest £16 billion in the UK over the next 10 years in four interlinked areas of life sciences: discovery research, infectious disease, mental health, and climate and health.

Although the UK excels in innovation for infectious diseases, immunology, and ageing, it is also a powerhouse in the area of genomics. The country’s strong life sciences, bioinformatics, and IT industries have only strengthened research in the genomics sector. “Genomics is the sweet spot where they meet,” says Wilson.

“For the past 30 years, we've had those sectors working together…inventing and advancing the computational skills to actually be able to aggregate, understand, and analyze the vast amounts of data that genomics produces, because genomics is about massive, massive datasets,” Wilson continues.

Research shows that drugs with genetic evidence are more likely to pass into Phase III clinical trials or even make it to market. Given that 90% of drugs do not make it through clinical trials, such genomic testing could save billions of dollars, as well as researchers’ time.

And one notable achievement in genomics is the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project, for which more than 85,000 NHS patients allowed their genomes to be sequenced. The data was then made available for researchers to conduct analysis and make breakthrough discoveries.

Impact of whole genome sequencing

The first study* to analyze the impact of WGS for rare diseases, using data from
the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project

Number of study participants who had their whole genome sequenced

Percentage of participants who received a new diagnosis

Percentage of diagnoses found in regions of the genome that would be missed by conventional methods

*Pilot study conducted by Genomics England and Queen Mary University of London
in partnership with the National Institute for Healf Research(NHR) BioResource

Compiled by MIT Technology Review Insights based on data from Genomics England.

The UK’s strength here is “not by accident, but by design,” Freeman notes. After the 2008 global financial crisis, the government set out a strategy with the aim of becoming “the most advanced genomics healthcare system in the world.” Most recently, the government earmarked £175 million to advance such research.

Cancer research is another area where the UK government is investing. It recently announced plans to launch trials of personalized cancer vaccines with BioNTech, building on the mRNA technology that was advanced during the covid-19 pandemic.

The pool of collaborators in life sciences R&D also includes the UK’s start-up ecosystem. Closed Loop Medicine, for example, optimizes medication regimens and aims to make precision medicine a reality for everyone. And, Congenica has created software that can interpret genomes to provide actionable information.

Growing with strong government investment

One of the reasons why the UK’s life sciences sector is a pioneer is because of strong support from the government. This support comes in numerous forms, from talent programs and favorable R&D policies to investment advice and tax incentives.

For example, the newly formed Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology was tasked with “positioning the UK at the forefront of global scientific and technological advancement”, said Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State. And, the Advanced Research Invention Agency (ARIA), which was launched in 2021, was given a budget of £800 million to identify and fund “high-risk, high reward” scientific research.

Last year, the UK Government increased its overall R&D expenditure by 30%, which will total almost £40 billion through 2025. This move directly supports the UK’s Innovation Strategy, which envisions R&D spending to reach 2.4% of GDP by 2027. In 2021, the UK Life Sciences Vision outlined a 10-year strategy for innovation, which includes investing £354 million in life sciences manufacturing.

The UK’s life sciences industry has grown thanks to a combination of heritage, collaboration, and deliberate support from its institutions, as well as its population. With a strong foundation now set, the country reinforcing these efforts to ensure this trajectory will continue.

The UK isn’t alone in recognising the power of life sciences. “There's a race on now to attract investment,” says Freeman. “But it means we have to be bigger and bolder and faster, which is really what we're doing.”