Joining up for the genome

February 19, 1999

If Genome Valley is to ever become a reality, academia, industry and government must form a coherent strategy, say George Poste and Robin Fears

A recent THES editorial (January 15) focused on the potential importance of the competitiveness white paper in developing initiatives for improved commercialisation of research. One proposal, a "Genome Valley", would seek to harness UK strengths in biological and medical research and development to produce new businesses and services based on advances in genetics. Debate is likely to be vigorous about whether Genome Valley should be a physical centre or site or be a "virtual" framework linking centres in academia, government and industry.

Global competition in the biosciences is increasing and the UK will have to work hard to maintain its pre-eminent role in Europe. Germany, which previously lagged far behind the UK in most aspects of biotechnology research and commercialisation, is catching up fast.

Genomics research, the study of the genetic control of biological function in health and disease, will have a major impact on the future diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and on medical practice. As understanding of the pathogenesis of common diseases is improved, it will mean new opportunities for prediction, prevention and cure, and for customised approaches to therapy that reflect genetic variation among individuals.

But the ability to exploit the potential of genomics research in healthcare depends to a large degree on the climate for healthcare companies. Some previous policy initiatives have been short-sighted, and it is difficult to avoid the feeling that UK drug procurement policy has been driven by a perceived need to reduce costs rather than by a consideration of what is best for the patient - never mind the desire to nurture a successful, research-based industry. Consequently, the Genome Valley initiative will not succeed unless there is a more coherent strategy to support innovation and competitiveness across government departments.

To use the jargon of the day, joined-up thinking by government to avoid fragmentation will be fundamental to making Genome Valley a reality. It will require the support of the science base, protection of intellectual property rights, the maintenance of a flexible and robust regulatory and advisory system and integration with European developments.

There are many individual examples of successful industry collaborations with academia. We now need the strategic recognition that developing such collaborations is central to making effective use of higher education institutions and should be rewarded.

The recent thinking by the funding councils and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals on the desirability of a funding stream for collaboration and innovation alongside the established streams for teaching and research is most welcome. This should not mean that all universities aspire to the same goals of research intensity and collaboration. A small cohort of institutions already attracts the bulk of biosciences funding, and it is essential to ensure that such an elite group of research universities continues to attract the world's leading R&D companies.

Unlike the US, where such a system already exists, the UK lacks an integrated set-up in which individual institutions have clearly defined and complementary missions that are understood by external funders and partners. The hierarchy of institutions operating within the University of California, for example, provides an attractive model for such diversity.

The medical curriculum also requires modernisation to incorporate advances in genomics. Capitalising on the information provided by gene sequencing and on the unparalleled capacity of the NHS to provide a research base in population genetics to correlate particular genes with major diseases will provide opportunities for building excellence in integrative biology and epidemiology.

SmithKline Beecham and other bioscience companies have been vocal in their concerns about the declining research infrastructure in UK universities. The historical under-investment has compromised excellence in the science base, making it harder to collaborate with institutions or recruit high-quality science staff.

The increased investment announced in the comprehensive spending review and the details of the research council allocations for life sciences and genomics are helpful, but in order to build on this, several other issues must be addressed.

The creation of the Joint Infrastructure Fund to encourage outstanding science is a significant advance, but it does not resolve the underfunding for basic equipment stock for research and teaching. Consequently, graduates will continue to lack adequate training in fundamental techniques.

Not all of the training issues require additional funds. For example, while there is a very good case to be made for extending the time between student entry into university and output as a trained life sciences PhD (from a minimum of six to seven years) and for further increasing the PhD stipend, the cost could be offset by reducing the number of PhD students.

But excellence in bioscience research alone will not suffice. The promise of Genome Valley needs clinical research and medical practice to assimilate these advances. Clinical research is in decline and the National Health Service has yet to posit a coherent strategy for managing the impact of genetics on healthcare. The conflicts created by the different missions of the medical schools and trusts must be resolved. Career tracks for clinical research must be protected and rewarded. The comprehensive informatics capability needed by a modern health system must be put in place. Large databases are fundamental to efficient use of resources and collation of data for evidence-based care. They also provide the key resource for genetic epidemiology and targeted patient care.

Industry and academia must also convince government of the case for a sustained commitment to increased funding for the science base. How can we demonstrate successful output from the new funding? Are public expectations the same as those in academia and industry? Public attitudes are very important in defining the environment for Genome Valley.

We are in the midst of various UK and pan-European initiatives to understand and review public opinion on biotechnology. What is also needed is for industry and academia to redouble their efforts to share perspectives and work together, to catalyse informed and transparent debate in the community at large, while avoiding domination of public consultation by well-organised, single-issue activist groups that are opposed to technology.

Genome Valley is an important strategic initiative, and the government is expected to announce the results of its early deliberations on the idea shortly. It is essential not to succumb to hyperbole and soundbite. But the UK can occupy a significant place in global biosciences R&D if the new commitment to science-base funding is accompanied by willingness to make additional hard choices in funding priorities, to demand integration across government departments, to stand firm in the face of unsubstantiated claims of risk and scaremongering by anti-technology lobbies, and above all, to recognise that the dramatic pace of change renders many traditional approaches to technology transfer and policy review obsolete.

George Poste is chief science and technology officer, and Robin Fears is director of science policy, SmithKline Beecham.

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