David Nutt warns there’s a bad trip in store for UK science if commercial drug development doesn’t receive a shot in the arm

If more is not done to support commercial drug development, the UK’s renowned science base will suffer, argues David Nutt

March 28, 2013

The pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has announced plans to close its research and development site in Cheshire and replace it with a smaller facility in Cambridge. The move will cost the UK about 600 research jobs.

This follows the closure in 2011 of Pfizer’s research and development facility in Sandwich, Kent with the loss of about 1,500 jobs, and of Merck’s (known in the UK as MSD) facilities in England and Scotland, which cost many hundreds more. These jobs were largely in high-end R&D, carried out by staff with doctoral and postdoctoral experience who, in terms of number and quality, were equivalent to the science faculties of half a dozen universities.

Ten years ago, the pharmaceutical sector was second only to the financial sector in terms of UK wealth creation. Now all we have left, apart from the downsized AstraZeneca and Pfizer facilities in Cambridge, are the GlaxoSmithKline site in Stevenage, Novartis in Horsham and a smaller Lilly centre in Bracknell. Given the recent trend, I cannot help wondering how long even these will last, particularly since Jon Symonds, Novartis’ global finance director, was threatening to relocate from the UK as recently as November.

The impact on existing careers in the pharmaceutical industry has been tempered by generous redundancy packages and, in a few cases, options for redundant staff to take on unwanted compounds for future development. But the impact on the next generation will be more profound. We have a cohort of highly trained chemistry and life sciences graduates and postdoctoral researchers whose career ambitions will be blighted by the loss of the major commercial outlet for their skills. Their palpable demoralisation will put off the next generation of school-leavers, for whom these areas of science will become much less attractive.

Politicians, for their part, have been appeased by the suggestion that smaller, smarter biotech companies will spring from the ruins and deliver a new future in drug discovery and development. Nevertheless, successive governments have tried to incentivise global pharmaceutical companies to stay in the UK with, for example, patent extensions and grants to support investments - such as the £5 million spent on AstraZeneca’s Cheshire site just before the closure announcement.

It is a source of enduring frustration to UK drug developers that the NHS is one of the least receptive markets for their new products

The government’s life sciences strategy has tried to inject funds into more translational R&D research, but this is not enough. More systematic change is urgently required. First, we need to explore the real reasons for the closures in order to develop a strategy to halt the trend.

The NHS’ failure to adopt new pharmaceuticals quickly also must be addressed. It is a source of enduring frustration to UK drug developers that the NHS is one of the least receptive markets for their new products - as well as being a source of despair to prescribers.

More radical approaches to patent protection are needed, too. One idea is to allow a licensed pharmaceutical a patent life that reflects the time and cost of getting it to market. Drugs for brain disorders typically take 13 years from concept to launch, cancer treatments only five; but both currently have the same patent life.

Generic competition laws must also be amended. Although these were generated by the European Commission with the good intention of making medicines cheaper, they have undermined the confidence of innovative pharmaceutical firms by permitting rivals to make generic versions of their drugs too early in the products’ life cycles. Despite making large profits, the manufacturers of generic drugs give little back in terms of R&D jobs.

The injection of money into translational medicine pathways by bodies such as the Medical Research Council is welcome, but the funding pathways are not well structured for the development and retention of research staff, so refinement is needed. Another good idea is to provide industry with the high-tech infrastructure that companies themselves cannot afford. An example is Imanova, the new positron emission tomography imaging centre. This MRC-backed operation run by Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London is attracting pharmaceutical companies from all over the world.

Major investments in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging (both UK inventions) could yield similar inward investments and provide posts for talented young neuroscientists. But the National Institute for Health Research networks for clinical research have not yet justified their investment and need modification to attract company trials. And the processes of research regulation in the NHS, which are so opaque and confused that it can take many years to set up a single trial, need overhauling.

Much can and must be done if we are to prevent the pharmaceutical recession leading to a negative spiral of diminished employment opportunities and fewer qualified graduates that will undermine the UK’s pre-eminence in global research.

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