By Matthew Thaxter, Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions
Following the launch of our ninth annual report ‘Unlocking R&D productivity: Measuring the return from pharmaceutical innovation 2018’, we hosted a panel discussion in London to explore how innovation in the wider R&D ecosystem can unlock R&D productivity. Our panel of experts comprising representatives from big pharma, a small innovative biotech company, the ABPI and the Medicines Discovery Catapult discussed a wide range of topics including: the UK healthcare ecosystem, government policies in the UK aimed at supporting the life sciences industry, the evolving skills and talent agenda and the role of regulators in encouraging innovation. Below are some of the key highlights from the discussion.
A positive outlook for UK Life Sciences
The discussion started with a question to the panel on the UK ecosystem and its readiness to compete with the biotech clusters in the US and elsewhere. One panellist noted that the life sciences industry has always been viewed as a priority in the UK regardless of the political party in power. Our panel acknowledged the government’s increased investment in the sector and the positive strides that the UK healthcare sector have made in improving the research environment. Key initiatives that were highlighted as particularly helpful in building on existing research strengths to create and grow new life sciences industries in the UK included:
- the launch of the UK Industrial Strategy White Paper in November 2017 and a commitment to work with industry to boost spending on R&D from 1.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, increasing to 3 per cent over the longer termi
- the establishment of a governance structure comprising the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Implementation Board, jointly chaired by the industry and the government,ii and the UK Life Sciences Council, jointly chaired by the Secretaries of State for Health and Businessiii
- the Life Sciences Sector Deal in 2017iv, setting out the first phase of the joint commitment between the government and industry to invest in the UK’s life sciences landscape, followed by the second deal in 2018, aimed at deepening the government’s partnership with industry, universities, charities and the NHS.v
Another panellist echoed the positive sentiment towards the UK’s scientific research capabilities, and highlighted the need for investment in the underlying infrastructure for digital technologies due to the advent of Real-World Evidence (RWE) and Real-World Data (RWD). They also mentioned the previous failure in rolling-out a digital infrastructure across the NHS, suggesting that a public-private partnership would improve the likelihood of success.
Harnessing the power of data
Discussion also centred on the growing wealth of data that is available across the biopharma sector and the importance of gaining the trust of patients in order to maximise value from the data. This is particularly pertinent in light of the current industry debate on the ownership of patient data, with one panellist believing, that we will reach a stage in the near future where the patient is seen as the sole owner of their data. As such, the panellists agreed that while building patient trust is essential, so is patient consent and the need for patients to know who is using their data and that the data is being used appropriately.
Moreover, the exponential growth in use of digital health technologies is generating vast amounts of clinical and non-clinical data, requiring pharma companies to have the right skills and talent to be able to ask the right questions, identify the right hypotheses and interpret the results accurately, in order to maximise value from these datasets. The panellists agreed that there was currently a shortage of the right skills and talent needed to undertake these types of analyses, and specifically a shortage of bioinformaticians and clinical pharmacologists.
Attracting diverse talent
Panellists discussed how companies are now competing for talent with other industries as they look to attract candidates with a broader range of skills to help transform the R&D function, and that this brings further challenges. Firstly, recruitment in the biopharma industry has historically been based on a legacy set of skills and knowledge, but this is changing, as companies look outside their own industry for talent. Secondly, silos are often present within biopharma companies resulting in ineffective cross-functional collaborations and sharing of expertise. These barriers need to be broken down, and an era of increasing workforce diversity and collaborative working across teams will be increasingly important.
One panellist noted that people who have worked within specific teams and functions for long periods of time often become stuck in one mind-set, and that their company is specifically looking to recruit talent with a broader range of experience, for example, having experience in both big pharma and start-up environments. Another initiative is the launch of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ FLIER (Future Leaders in Innovation, Enterprise and Research) programme to develop leaders who can create collaborations across academia, industry, the NHS and government to drive innovation.vi
A member of the audience asked how the biopharma industry, which is seen by prospective employees as highly regulated and risk averse, could be changed to attract top talent, especially as there is a perception that regulators are reluctant to approve new technologies and accept new forms of research evidence. The panel, however, noted that this is not what they are seeing, with regulators increasingly open to discussing innovation. One panellist used the example of Alzheimer’s disease, and how new ‘organ-on-a-chip’ technology is being used as an alternative to animal models in Alzheimer’s drug discovery and that this has been received positively by their regulators.
Real-World Evidence – a game changer for reducing time to market
The next question to the panel concerned the increase in clinical cycle times across the industry and whether there was anything that regulators could do to help reduce this. The panel mentioned the introduction of special designations, such as ‘Breakthrough Designation’ in the US, as something that is already in place, and that in the future, the more frequent use of RWE/RWD, digital technologies and new endpoints could help reduce the time to market. One panel member highlighted the example of Pfizer’s Ibrance that was expanded for use in men with breast cancer following the use of RWD, to demonstrate regulators’ increasing willingness to use new forms of evidence.vii
In his concluding remarks, the Chair of the session noted that the wide ranging discussion had certainly provided many interesting insights into key areas of the R&D ecosystem, and numerous ideas for us to consider as we embark on our 2019 analysis for the tenth addition of the ‘Measuring the return from pharmaceutical innovation’ series. Furthermore, he acknowledged that the biopharma industry in the UK is in an exciting period of transition, with new and existing companies adopting new ways of tackling R&D, and that we will be tracking the impact of these changes on R&D productivity over the coming years.