Life sciences minister vaunts value of health data

George Freeman says public will back government’s ‘brave decision’ to open up healthcare records to medical research

February 12, 2015

Source: Science Photo Library

Clear ambition: minister wants UK to be premier destination for genomic medicine

Life sciences minister George Freeman has called on academics to support the opening up of health data for research in a bid to get the public on board.

Speaking at the launch event of a new knowledge transfer project at University College London, he added that he wanted the UK to become the go-to place for genomic medicine research in the next decade. He also outlined the government’s plans to get every hospital in the country involved in medical research.

Mr Freeman became the UK’s first life sciences minister in the July 2014 Cabinet reshuffle.

He said that the government has made some “brave decisions” to open up healthcare data for medical research.

“We are absolutely convinced we can carry the public with us so long as academics and clinicians are prepared to support the importance of that data for research,” he said.

The government has also invested in genomics, and the UK is the first country to launch a genomic medicines service in its health service, he added. The intention is “to really establish leadership so that Britain becomes the place [to come to for genomic medicine] in the next decade”, he said.

His appointment, which brings with it responsibilities in the Department of Health as well the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, signified a shift in policy for the life sciences. “For 25 years the government has been trying to push life sciences through the department of business. But my argument is that you won’t push an industry, you have to pull it through,” he said.

His arrival in Parliament came not long before US pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced the closure, in February 2011, of its research and development facilities in Sandwich, he said.

There was a “collective gulp and a bit of panic” at that news, he recalled, as a decision had recently been taken to make the life sciences a key part of the long-term economic plan.

“I said we shouldn’t panic at all. This is the closure of a 20th-century plant…we want to build a 21st-century landscape.”

He said the old model of “deep silos” of scientists working on their own, getting venture capital to create a business before being acquired by another company “if they are lucky” and then the product passing through different phases of clinical trials was “too long” and expensive.

“Let’s put in place a new model which will be really patient-centred and let’s unlock the real power of our NHS to be at the heart of a modern life sciences ecosystem,” he added.

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