The UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA) has launched a 10-year science strategy, setting out how science can save more lives and contribute to the U.K.’s ambition of being a global science superpower.
The strategy sets out how the UKHSA scientific capabilities – including genomics, vaccine evaluation, surveillance, data science, diagnostics and toxicology – will be deployed to prepare for future health security hazards, respond to current threats to save lives, reduce harm, protect livelihoods and essentially build the U.K.’s health security capacity.
The plan points to investment in scientific workforce and deeper partnerships with industry and academia in order to achieve a series of goals.
“For the U.K. to truly lead the way, the old clinical trial dinosaurs must evolve – and fast.”
One aim is to predict and anticipate health threats, through unique and expert skills in genomics, data science and surveillance, including disease vector (such as mosquitoes and ticks) surveillance.
The UKHSA also hopes to create a more secure environment, by enhancing understanding of the threats in the environment and building scientific defenses against these hazards, as well as reducing and eliminating health threats, by strengthening the scientific evidence underpinning health protection programs.
Another goal is to unlock the potential of scientific assets, and secure the legacy from the pandemic to increase the impact of science on health and economic prosperity, strengthening vaccine and diagnostic development and evaluation and data science.
Science ‘backbone’ of COVID response
Isabel Oliver, chief scientific advisor at UKHSA, said: “We saw the art of the possible during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with genomic data allowing the rapid identification and characterisation of variants enabling the rapid development and evaluation of diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics.
“Science was the backbone of the world’s response, helping us to understand the virus, how to best protect ourselves and ultimately live safely with the virus. UKHSA will deploy its unique scientific capabilities working with partners to protect lives and livelihoods from the health threats we are facing now and those we will detect, prevent and control in future.”
Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, said the new strategy will ensure the U.K. is ready to tackle all current and future health threats quickly and effectively, securing the best health outcomes and greater prosperity for the country.
Developments include a new Centre for Climate and Health Security, including delivering a five-year assessment report on the Health Effects of Climate Change. In addition, UKHSA said it is working in partnership to accelerate and expand its role in new diagnostics and developing the organization’s genomic capabilities to detect threats to health rapidly and effectively, as well as supporting the development of the vaccines and therapeutics needed to protect health.
‘Old-fashioned clinical trials industry‘
Life science companies also had their say on the new strategy.
Mark Kotter, CEO and founder of bit.bio, told Labiotech: “A great deal of work is taking place across Government to ensure that the right strategy, partnerships and regulatory environment are in place to deliver the vision of the UK as a leading science superpower.
“However, to achieve this, the Government must help companies like bit.bio that are built on innovation and rapidly scaling unlock major new sources of investment. At this stage, accessing investment is the biggest challenge, and without this support many of the most exciting and high potential companies may have to look beyond the UK or delay their innovation pipeline.
Kotter said it is important to look at regulatory processes and there must be learnings from COVID to ensure novel treatments and technologies can benefit patients as rapidly as possible.
“As the founder and CEO of a U.K. based company, I look forward to continuing to play a role in enabling the U.K. to become a science superpower, where innovative science companies are supported to grow, thrive, and deliver huge impact.”
Emma Harvey, global head of medical affairs at F2G, said: “I welcome the UKHSA’s science strategy as it establishes an environment that fosters industry-academic collaboration, nurturing diverse perspectives that fuel innovation and drive the discovery of breakthrough therapies rooted in scientific evidence, in addition to supporting ongoing surveillance efforts.
“The pandemic showed the extent to which we are all interconnected irrespective of geographic location, as well as showing how one disease increases the risk for another, for example the high rates of invasive fungal disease seen in patients with COVID-19. When it comes to most infectious diseases, time is of the essence, so being able to take some of the key learnings from the pandemic, and collaborate to predict, and quickly address public health threats is a step towards safeguarding against future disease outbreaks and anticipating what the challenges might be.
“This has the potential to apply to multiple areas of concern, including addressing the increase in drug-resistant invasive fungal infections and implementing surveillance efforts to track potential outbreaks. It may be a national strategy, but it has the potential to make a global impact.”
Evan Floden, a bioinformatician and co-founder of Seqera Labs, told Labiotech: “The UKHSA’s plans to embed genomics into the U.K.’s healthcare system will be a step-change in the way we are able to monitor and treat outbreaks of conditions such as TB, hepatitis C and HIV/Aids, as well as the prediction and prevention of future health threats such as avian flu and diseases borne by ticks and mosquitoes.
“What we have learnt from the pandemic is that labs have vastly different capabilities and resources to document the spread of disease, and data is often not presented in a standard way. By drawing up plans to embed practices into the healthcare system on a nationwide level, the UKHSA will build and implement a framework which will address these issues and establish an industry standard for reporting and monitoring.”
However, Floden said, the technical delivery of these programs is complex – they require real-time data and analysis from researchers and scientists across the country, with the potential for international input as well.
“As such, the technology using this analysis must be highly secure, compliant with strict data privacy laws, and accessible across multiple platforms and clouds. Genomics researchers working on the frontline of some of the most urgent areas of healthcare globally favor open-source platforms which allow them to collaboratively develop and standardise the diagnostic tools they are using, as well as their test data which is then analysed to find trends. One such example was how analysis of Covid-19 test results was used to find new pathogens, or evidence that the virus was mutating.
“Although many of these systems have long been deeply embedded in medical research around the world and used to improve human life in areas such as oncology and personalized medicine, we are seeing a swift trend of nations working to embed them in more formal initiatives which look to utilize both genomics and technology to keep populations safe from threats. Looking to the future, there is undoubtedly scope for genomics to become the foundation for even more national and international collaboration to improve public health.”
‘All the tools’
Michael Young, co-founder of Lindus Health and former No. 10 life sciences adviser, told us: “The U.K. has all the tools to be a global life science superpower. We have an incredible R&D sector, but the industry is held back by an old-fashioned clinical trials industry which means that new treatments can take up to 15 years to reach patients.
“We’re now seriously lagging behind countries like the U.S. and Germany when it comes to the time it takes to approve new drugs and to invest in trial infrastructure.
“It’s welcome that the Government is serious about supporting our science and clinical research sectors to reach their full potential. But for the U.K. to truly lead the way, the old clinical trial dinosaurs must evolve – and fast.”
Clinical trials have long been in the spotlight, with calls for greater geographic and gender diversity, among other improvements. Last year, Medidata published a report, ‘European Industry Research Report: The Future of Clinical Trials’. The report drew on new independent research that includes insights from 400 clinical trial executives across the U.K., France, Germany and Switzerland.
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