Brexit could marginalise UK life sciences – expert

As the UK gears up for Brexit, a leading cancer doctor has expressed concerns about its impact on life sciences research.

This, combined with issues with reimbursement of cancer drugs, could lead to the country losing its edge in life science R&D, warned centre lead for the Barts Cancer Institute’s Centre for Haemato-Oncology, Dr John Gribben.

Despite calming words from politicians such as sciences minister Jo Johnson, Gribben said that millions of pounds in EU funding is under threat because of Brexit.

Prime minister Theresa May is drawing up plans with colleagues over Brexit following the historic “leave” vote in June – but there is uncertainty over how this will affect UK life sciences, and the funding it receives from the EU.

The main source of such funding is the 80 billion euro Horizon 2020 scheme. The UK has already secured around 15% of grants so far available, second only to Germany, but concerns are mounting that this vital life sciences funding source could dry up.

Speaking at a conference outlining the work of the Oslo Cancer Cluster, organised by one of its partners, AbbVie, Gribben said: “Britain gets a lot more back than it puts in.

“I think most collaborations feel that there is a threat because of Brexit and may want to pull out.”

Although the UK could still access Horizon 2020 cash after Brexit, Gribben said UK teams could have to play second fiddle to their EU colleagues, as they would likely be frozen out of high-level discussions over project design.

“If we are involved then we won’t be in the driving seat,” said Gribben.

But Gribben is most concerned that new UK initiatives will not attract funding, as the panels deciding which projects to back are very risk-averse.

“These grants are highly competitive, and panels are looking for excuses not to fund something,” warned Gribben.

Another post-Brexit issue for life sciences R&D could be attracting patients from abroad. Although currently uncommon in Europe, there is a trend elsewhere in the world for patients to travel or relocate from different countries to take part in clinical trials.

This could be impacted by changes to arrangements governing movement between the UK and EU countries.

The conference heard from Deborah Sims, a leukaemia patient, who in a break-out session explained how she had met Gribben by chance at a medical conference.

Thanks to her UK passport, Sims was able to move from Australia to the UK to take part in an early stage trial combining AbbVie’s venetoclax and Roche’s obinutuzumab to treat her aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Sims now commutes from Australia every month to receive treatment.

“Americans think nothing of travelling to be part of a clinical trial,” said Gribben.

The combination of the lack of EU funding, and big pharma’s disenchantment with NICE, particularly in cancer, could lead to the country falling behind in life sciences research, said Gribben – despite the government’s decision to champion pharmaceuticals as a driver of growth.

“I know companies that are saying they are going to forget about the UK market. That might be fine in the short term, but it could mean that the country could be marginalised,” Gribben added.

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