New funding and early access to experimental drugs could help industry and patients.
The United Kingdom's life sciences industry has secured new commitments from Prime Minister David Cameron to help grow Britain's healthcare sector with new funding and regulatory changes.
The plan includes commitments to introduce a $283 million (£180 million) government Biomedical Catalyst Fund to invest in U.K. health and life sciences companies, as well as the introduction of a new pathway for granting seriously ill patients early access to certain drugs.
“The industry is changing; not just year by year, but month by month,” says Cameron. Despite the United Kingdom's strong science base and national health program, keeping apace of the competition will require radical change,” he says.
The United Kingdom's biotech sector employs about 36,000 people and about 345 companies are directly involved in the development, manufacturing, or selling of therapeutic products according to the BioIndustry Association, a national industry trade group.
Glyn Edwards, the association's interim chief, says the group is looking forward to seeing the details of this initiative and how it will support innovative small and medium-sized companies facing the “valley of death” funding gap.
Cameron also proposed two key regulatory changes to support drug research, both of which could have far-reaching implications for clinical trials in the United Kingdom. In the first, an early access program, people suffering in the advanced stage of a disease would be granted access to experimental drugs if no other treatments are available. In the second, more controversial change, the government plans to automatically share National Health Service patient data with clinical researchers unless patients opt-out. Despite opposition to the idea by some privacy advocates, Cameron said in a speech announcing the idea that “it is simply a waste to have a health system like the NHS and not to do this kind of thing.”
In addition, Cameron says he’ll extend the installation of medical monitoring technologies to three million people over the next five years, in an effort to put the United Kingdom “miles ahead of other countries commercially.”
Despite efforts to shore up support for new technologies and small-scale R&D efforts, some of the country’s largest drugmakers have been cutting back their presence there. In February, Pfizer announced plans to layoff of about 2,400 researchers and support staff in Sandwich, United Kingdom, while in March, Novartis said it would cut 550 positions from a plant in Horsham. Whether the package of incentives introduced by Cameron will be enough to keep small companies anchored in a time where new investors can be hard to come by remains to be seen.
By MICHAEL FITZHUGH