UK 2024 election: A vote for drug discovery

Polling station sign

By DDW Editor Reece Armstrong

The upcoming general election in the UK has placed the priorities of the country into the spotlight and the drug discovery sector should in no way be forgotten.

Economic uncertainty, challenging global conditions and a healthcare system facing serious pressures, means that whatever government takes the reigns come 4 July, they’ll be indebted with numerous burdens. 

As such it would be easy to dismiss the life sciences sector, an historical strong point in the UK, as a sector unimportant to the parties in this election, but this shouldn’t be the case.

A recent report by the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) really highlights the current challenges UK drug developers face by operating within the country. Challenges such as increasing costs for materials and equipment, exacerbated by inflation, alongside limited availability of appropriate lab space, and a skills shortage, make it a particularly challenging environment for companies operating on limited budgets.

The report also notes that since 2022, small-to-medium-enterprises (SMEs) have faced increasing difficulty in gaining access to types of public and private funding. Economic instability and high rates of inflation mean that investors might be more risk averse to hedging bets on potentially innovative early-stage companies. 

SMEs are vital both to the economic growth of the UK and to the patients who ultimately benefit from the innovative therapies that make it to market. However, as the MDC report notes, this combination of reduced investment and inflated costs, coupled with a lack of laboratory space and skill shortages, means that early-stage companies are struggling to make themselves attractive to investors, and ultimately, their knowledge, ideas and skills could be lost. 

Don’t get me wrong, the UK is still a great place for science to flourish – we have a strong biopharmaceutical industry that pairs nicely with our academic institutions, and up and down the country there are hubs of scientific hotspots where collaborations can occur. 

However, as the MDC notes, a shift in mindset and practical steps are needed so that companies can get the investment they need. 

Dr Richard Torbett, Chief Executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, explains it well: “For the UK to become a global life science superpower, we must create a conducive environment across all stages of medicine development to support UK-based companies and attract more inward investment. This means an ecosystem that facilitates the seamless transition of cutting-edge discoveries through the development pipeline, as well as providing a clear route for adoption of these medicines by the NHS and other countries.”

Steps such as the UK becoming an associate partner to Horizon Europe at the start of 2024 are certainly welcome in helping researchers access more funding opportunities but collaboration is key and since Brexit, visa fees mean that companies have faced difficulties in attracting international talent. 

These are just some of the issues the next British government must tackle if the life sciences industry is to flourish in the future. The benefits of ensuring that researchers can attract funding and talent is clear – Cancer Research UK notes that spending £1 on research generates £2.80 for the economy, highlighting the importance of this country’s research industry in both growing the economy and for patient outcomes. 

Whatever your political leanings, the drug discovery sector in the UK must be supported if we are to compete efficiently on the global stage. We have the talent, but if it is not nurtured we risk losing ground to international competitors and worse, failing to deliver innovative pipelines that can treat patients.

From DDW Volume 25 – Issue 3, Summer 2024 Read the digital issue

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