UK aims to shave years off drug development

The UK government has announced an ‘end to end’ review of how drugs are developed, approved and accessed by patients in a bid to make the country a leader in biomedical innovation.

The new Innovative Medicines and MedTech Review has been announced by the UK’s life sciences minister George Freeman, who believes new measures could shave years off the time it takes to bring a drug to market.

Key to the strategy will be in aligning the interests of the pharma, biotech and medical technologies sectors with the publicly-funded national health service (NHS). The government believes that this alignment will create ‘health, wealth and innovation,’ improving treatment for patients and boosting the economy at the same time.

“NHS leadership in health research is attracting new investment into our life sciences research sector, generating the health and wealth we need to be a modern economy,” said minister for life sciences, George Freeman.

“I want to ensure that patients up and down the country can get access to important innovations as soon as possible. By revolutionising the way in which we look at getting medicines and devices into the NHS we will make sure that this country is the best place in the world for 21st Century medical innovation.”

Freeman has been a government minister for five months and a member of Parliament since 2010, before which he worked in life science venture capital and other healthcare businesses.

He is championing the use of many new approaches to accelerating discovery and development of medicines including genomics and digital technologies, which he believes will help boost the UK’s base in medicines, devices and diagnostics.

Freeman told pharmaphorum in a press briefing yesterday that the moves could development times by “five, six, seven years” – a truly ambitious target given the pharmaceutical industry’s more modest progress on timelines over recent years.

Details of how this rapid acceleration can be achieved remain thin on the ground, but Freeman says he want to mimic the success of the FDA’s Critical Path initiative, which has tackled the widening gap between exciting early science and their translation into innovative treatments.

The minister says the new initiative will itself have a timespan of 5-10 years in order to touch all aspects of the system. This will include how new treatments might be adopted faster into the NHS, which remains, according to pharma industry body ABPI ‘low and slow’ compared to other nations.  Freeman made it clear, however, that the existing structures of health technology review by NICE, and the newly updated pricing system the PPRS would remain in place.

The ‘Innovative Medicines and MedTech Review’ will examine:

• how new approaches to the development of medicines, diagnostic and devices, based on precision medicine and emerging technologies, could speed up access to innovative products for NHS patients

• how more collaborative work between companies and regulatory and evaluation bodies could ensure that innovative products can be assessed more quickly, using better data

• how charities and patient groups can play a greater role so that NHS patients can get access to cutting-edge treatments

• what more can be done to promote the rapid adoption of important medical innovations into clinical practice

One of the immediate obstacles to Freeman’s plans is the UK general election, to be held on 7 May 2015. If his Conservative party does not win enough seats to win an outright victory, or is unable to form a coalition, his proposals coming at the tail-end of this parliament, may be discarded by the next government.

However there is some hope that the aims will be carried forward, whoever forms the next government. There has been a general consensus among the main political parties that the life sciences sector is a key growth industry, and that it requires a long-term industrial plan.

Responding to the announcement, ABPI Chief Executive Stephen Whitehead said:

“The ABPI warmly welcomes this announcement, we have long called for such an initiative in response to increasing evidence of the need for a holistic approach to UK life sciences. This needs to bring together the life science industrial strategy with the health system, linking licensing, value assessment, NHS commissioning in order to deliver increased patient access to new, innovative medicines.

“We particularly welcome the Minister’s commitment to get medical innovations to patients quicker, this has previously been recognised by the ABPI as being the main challenge to delivering the government’s Strategy for Life Sciences.”

The announcement was accompanied by news that two companies – MSD (known as Merck in the US and Canada) and BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company) are investing in new UK-based projects. MSD will invest £42 million by creating a new licensing hub in London, expanding research at its Hertfordshire headquarters and funding clinical research in oncology and dementia.

BD, a global medical technology company, is investing £21 million to build a next generation blood separation tube production line in Plymouth.

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