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UK life sciences let down by poor informatics skills, experts warn

UK News | March 26, 2013


Lynne Taylor

Health informatics is set to be a major driver of success for UK life sciences, but the sector - and industry in particular - does not yet have the necessary analytical skills, according to leading experts.

"We need to build up a cadre of people who can do this," government life sciences champion Professor Sir John Bell told a meeting at the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) recently, and AMS president Professor Sir John Tooke agreed that medical training should move towards including the provision of skills in informatics and bioinformatics.

Dr Ruth McKernan, senior vice president at Pfizer and chief scientific officer at the firm's Neusentis research unit, discussed the opportunities presented by precision medicine. She said that this will involve moving away from the current pattern of reactive health care, based on episodic care, symptomatic disease management and therapeutic intervention, and towards the routine use of genomics to identify patient risk factors and of "Big Data" to stratify patients and then precision medicine to choose the right treatment for them. Leveraging the wealth of patient data available through resources such as health records and biobanks is key to patient stratification, and the challenge is how to speedily bridge the gap between the data and the patient, she said.

The benefits of this process which the pharmaceutical industry will derive are that the speed and costs of developing drugs will be reduced dramatically, she said, but speakers at the meeting did not feel that this will necessarily lead to new drugs costing less. In fact, with smaller patient populations and greater predictability, payers will have a better sense of the value proposition and could therefore be willing to pay more, it was suggested.

For the true potential of life sciences in the UK to be realised, industry and academia will have to engage in much more complicated partnerships that in the past, Dr Declan Mulkeen of the Medical Research Council (MRC) told the conference. The science must remain at the forefront, but each company will see the science question in a different way, so a shared and very well-developed science agenda will be critical, he stressed.

Speakers agreed that the existing pattern of collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and academia has to change. Sir John Bell called for the whole process to begin again "with a clean sheet," and to focus on open and adjacent innovation.

Dr Chris Streather of the South London Academic Health Science Network acknowledged that the NHS has in the past regarded the industry as "a banker to fund our pet projects - it's been a very transactional relationship."  But in true partnership working, the NHS provides access to populations, while academia supplies evaluative expertise and industry contributes ideas and entrepreneurial skill, he said.

Partnerships must deliver mutual benefits, added Dr Pete Downes of the University of Dundee. Universities have to deliver for their partners and the arrangement must be built on mutual respect and trust. 

There also needs to be far greater movement of people between the industry and academic sectors, with much more in the way of secondments and exchanges. "We must experiment with this over next few years - and do it here in the UK, not overseas. So far, we haven't enabled this interface to happen," said Sir David Cooksey, chair of the Francis Crick Institute, while Dr McKernan called for this process to be professionalised and systematised. 'We need to put money into this," she said.

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