Go back

NHS could miss the boat on personalised medicine

The NHS struggles to take on new technologies to the extent that health research might find itself with nowhere to go, a fringe event at the Liberal Democrat conference heard on 19 September.

“There are things like genomics and strategic medicine where we’re making progress on the basic science end, but if we’re not careful we’re going to end up in a position where the NHS isn’t ready, and the regulatory environment for research is unable to maximise the benefits,” Cancer Research UK’s Emma Greenwood told the event entitled “Is there a future for discovering and producing medicines in the UK?”

Greenwood said that fragmentation of rules across different NHS authorities and excessive bureaucracy meant that carrying out research within the system was like “driving a Rolls-Royce down a dirt track”.

The government has promised to create a single Health Research Agency in order to streamline approvals this year, Greenwood told the meeting. “The government has committed to taking action in this year’s budget and the Plan for Growth … We’ve yet to see that being played out.”

The charity is calling for the government to produce a coherent research and innovation strategy that can stop varied and conflicting initiatives coming out of different government departments, such as those on immigration policy, she added. The Office for Life Sciences, established under the last government, aimed to do that, “but we’ve almost stopped before we really got to the stage where we’ve outlined a clear vision,” she said.

Speaking at the same event, Colin Blakemore, University of Oxford professor of neuroscience and former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, also lamented the decline of clinical trials in the UK.

Despite the UK’s health system having the potential to be the perfect test bed for new drugs, the percentage of the world’s clinical trials carried out in the country has fallen from 6 per cent in 2000 to 2 per cent in 2006 and 1 per cent today, he said. CRUK estimates it takes an average of 621 days after deciding to fund a trial to recruit the first patient. “And for lots of reasons… reforms in NHS do not look encouraging with respect to that,” added Blakemore.

The neuroscientist also lamented the crisis facing the UK as big pharmaceutical companies increasingly desert the country, reeling off recent closures at Sandwich, Newhouse, Charnwood and Dagenham.

“The real level of investment by pharmaceuticals in research facilities is in decline,” he said. “This is increasingly bad overall for the government’s science and technology plan… as pharmaceuticals are by far the biggest contributor to UK [Business Enterprise R&D] spending. Our innovative industries are not as diverse as in Germany and the US… and big pharma have the option of taking their activity elsewhere.”

However, both Greenwood and Blakemore praised the state of the UK’s biomedical research and saw potential in increasing collaboration between research councils, the government, charities and industry. “The lead we have developed in stem cells and the application of genetic technology in general is very encouraging,” said Blakemore.