Britain is losing its chance to become a life sciences superpower


The writer is managing partner at SV Health Investors  

The UK has everything it needs to be a 21st century life sciences superpower. But short-term pressures are crowding out long-term solutions, squandering this important opportunity.

We had a glimpse of the future with the announcement that the government is partnering with BioNTech to trial innovative cancer vaccines in the UK. These mRNA vaccines, tailored to each tumour’s genetic code, are designed to harness patients’ immune systems. This is a potentially game-changing approach, which promises to protect patients against cancer in the same way as mRNA vaccines protect against severe Covid-19. This may also lower care costs since tumour sequencing and vaccination should be far cheaper than existing immunotherapy treatments.

This collaboration between scientists, industry and the government was born out of the pandemic when it was the UK which first administered German-based BioNTech’s bestselling Covid vaccine, partnered with Pfizer.

We had another glimpse of this possible future in 2021, when the US-based Grail recruited 140,000 people in England to trial a blood test to detect cancer earlier and more cheaply. If both trials prove successful, they could change the whole landscape of how cancer is diagnosed and treated, enhancing the quality of millions of lives and potentially saving the NHS billions.

That these two foreign companies chose the UK to pioneer these tests and treatments underlines our reputation as a destination for innovation. Our academic sector is world class. The NHS has a unique ability to recruit thousands of diverse patients for clinical trials. But this exciting future is being put at risk by the present. The UK is ideally placed to become a global leader of a new age in precision medicine, but the need to address current pressures of cost of living, debt and soaring inflation is crowding out the long-term measures required to support innovation.

Despite the astonishing successes of our life sciences companies, the sector is still the object of suspicion and incomprehension within parts of government. The recent decision to cut R&D tax credits for small, innovative high-tech companies makes the point perfectly. These have played a major role in helping such companies flourish here.

SV Health Investors has built dozens of these life science companies over the years. As a direct result of the tax credits decision, they are now moving jobs abroad and fewer clinical trials are being done in the UK. The government has belatedly announced a review. It would have been far better never to have made this decision in the first place.

Big companies are also retrenching. The pharmaceutical giants AbbVie and Eli Lilly have pulled out of the UK’s pricing agreement with the NHS. Bayer’s pharmaceutical arm is reducing its UK footprint and cutting jobs. Our own domestic titans, GSK and AZ, have chosen to build new factories in countries more friendly to business.

Meanwhile, our share of the global pharmaceutical R&D market is declining. UK-based academics are now barred from the Horizon EU research programme, preventing them from participating in pioneering European work on the causes of disease.

The crisis of NHS waiting lists has disguised the fact that reform is badly needed, so that the NHS can pay for the new drugs which will keep patients out of hospital and dramatically improve survival rates. UK patients already have less access to innovative, life-saving medicines than those in other countries — and the outcomes show it.

What is really needed is a change of mindset. As the BioNTech and Grail trials show, the UK has incredible resources and an unmissable opportunity to establish itself as a superpower. But if we are not to sacrifice the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren, seizing that opportunity requires real expertise, genuine partnership and a remorseless focus on the long term.


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