UK drug discovery evolving – and facing up to Brexit

A new UK report confirms the shift in pharma R&D spending from in-house teams to greater use of outsourcing and in-licensing – but also warns that investment in drug discovery in the country could be under threat.

The report published by the UK’s Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) finds that 60% of major pharma companies have increased investment in outsourced and collaborative drug discovery work in the UK over the last 10 years, whilst simultaneously decreasing the number of in-house drug discovery lab staff.

‘The Changing UK Drug Discovery Landscape’, produced by consultants TBR and CBSL, shows that a new ‘network’ model for early research and development of new medicines is now firmly in place.

Whereas once pharma companies aimed to discover the majority of their products in house, the industry is increasingly dependent on biotech firms and academic partners and research charities to identify new targets and discover novel molecules.

The findings come from a survey of around 70 leading organisations in the field, alongside interviews with senior drug discovery experts.

The reports says that the approach has been central to realising some of the most groundbreaking discoveries of the last 10 years, particularly in the fight against cancer, such as immunotherapies, as well as in the ambition to unlock treatments for rare or degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s.

The UK academic biosciences sector is  particularly strong in collaborative work on target identification and validation – expertise essential when competition from research hubs around the world is growing.

UK’s position under threat

However, the research also indicates that the UK’s heritage as a pioneer in drug discovery is potentially under threat.

The report finds that whilst many companies have increased their investment in discovery in the UK, contributing to the £4billion spent annually on R&D in Britain by the pharmaceutical industry, the country is beginning to lose out proportionally on global drug discovery investment compared to ten years ago.

The most notable setback was the closure of Pfizer’s R&D centre in Sandwich, Kent in 2012, although these cutbacks are often explained in terms of global cutbacks rather than judgements on the UK sector.

The report is being shared and discussed today at a FORUM event hosted with the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS), featuring prominent leaders from the drug discovery landscape.

Professor Herbie Newell FMedSci, co-chair of the AMS FORUM, said: “This report provides further evidence of the importance of the biopharmaceutical industry to the health and wealth of the UK. In particular, following a number of company mergers, acquisitions and down-sizing in the sector, it shows that biotech, academia and contract research organisations have grown to ensure that the UK remains globally competitive.

Newell added that today’s conference would bring together leaders from research, industry, policy makers, health charities and research funders to consider how to enhance drug discovery in the UK in future.

He said this may include maintaining investment in technologies, facilities and training, and continuing to support academia, pharma, biotech and CROs working together and would allow “the UK continue to lead in providing patients and healthcare professionals with access to new medicines.”

This final point is a perennial bone of contention for the pharma industry, which says access to new drugs – even those discovered and developed in the UK – is often ‘low and slow’.

The ABPI says this is a problem – not just for patients, but also for encouraging further investment in research.


One of the biggest issues facing the sector, of course, is the UK’s exit from the EU.

Opening the conference, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor Sir Robert Lechler said while most people in the sector had opposed Brexit, ‘the milk has now been spilt” and the job of trying to minimise risks and maximise opportunities needed to be addressed.

Also addressing the meeting, the ABPI’s chief executive Mike Thompson said the government’s response to the sector’s Brexit fears was so far ‘excellent’ but said tightening restrictions on access to new medicines on the NHS was worrying.


Don't miss your daily pharmaphorum news.
SUBSCRIBE free here.