The threat to the UK’s “enviable” university-industry “ecosystem” for biomedical research from the proposed takeover of AstraZeneca by Pfizer is “deeply worrying”, a senior academic has warned.
Sir John Tooke, vice-provost for health at University College London, said that close links between the pharmaceutical industry and academia were “essential” to improve the pace and cost of drug development.
He recognised that there would be “limits” on any assurances that Pfizer could give, but said there needed to be “concrete commitments” on partnerships with academia – such as a recently announced rare diseases consortium involving Pfizer and leading research universities.
AstraZeneca has about 200 active collaborations with UK academic institutions, which include research and student programmes.
Earlier this year, it announced the creation of a joint research centre with the Medical Research Council at a new research and development facility, which will include the company’s headquarters, on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
Sir John’s comments come in the week that MPs from two House of Commons committees have grilled representatives from the companies over fears that Pfizer will move jobs and investment out of the UK if the takeover goes ahead.
A written statement of evidence submitted by AstraZeneca to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee said that the commitment to establish its headquarters in Cambridge would bring academic benefits.
AstraZeneca said it played a key role in the life sciences community and urged the committee to look at the evidence on whether the proposed consolidation “is in the best interest of the sector”.
In its evidence to the committee, Pfizer reiterated its commitment to complete the Cambridge centre and pledged to keep a fifth of its R&D staff in the UK.
Sir John, who is also president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said that the government needed to consider creating new public-private partnerships that make the research and development ecosystem “less vulnerable to the commercial behaviour of corporate giants”.
“Removing the VAT barrier on academic buildings that nurture industrial collaboration would be an important step in that direction,” he added.
Sir John explained that universities need to “work smarter” by forming clusters that can draw on “synergistic strengths” to continue to attract inward investment.