Now is the time for a “big push” to improve the environment for biotechnology in the UK, says Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“To allow the biotech industry to get some strength in research out of the NHS [National Health Service] is something we need to look at in this country,” Blair commented before meeting with representatives from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Amgen and other companies at Amgen’s new European headquarters in Uxbridge. On the agenda was how to maintain the UK’s competitive edge in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors.

Assuring the assembled business leaders that he was “here to listen”, Blair stated: “We need to get the policy right, so I need to know what you want me to do.” The prime minister will be asking Sir David Cooksey, chairman of the Clinical Research Collaboration Industry Reference Group, to review the progress made since his 2003 report on the challenges facing biotechnology in the UK.

Blair believes industry and the government have now curbed the actions of animal rights extremists that threatened to undermine the UK’s research base. He also underlined his support for stem cell research.

The discussions in Uxbridge covered the cost of clinical trials, strengthening links with universities, and funding for biotechnology. The BioIndustry Association (BIA) said the meeting was “incredibly positive from all around the table”, and that the Prime Minister’s leadership on creating the right policy climate for biotech had “reverberated across the sector”.

Bioscience was “one of the few sectors where the UK can remain competitive for generations to come, and deliver benefits to patients and the economy”, commented BIA chairman Dr Simon Best. But government support was crucial, as in some areas it was not feasible for the UK to compete with low-cost economies, he noted, adding: “Our competitive edge is in our high skills base.”

Among the key recommendations of the 2003 report by the Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team (BIGT), which was chaired by Sir David Cooksey, were introducing legislation to deal with animal rights extremism; creating a network of bioprocessing centres across the UK, boosting financial liquidity to encourage the formation of UK biotechs with global scale and critical mass; improving the regulatory environment to accelerate the approval and use of treatments in areas of major medical need; and using the NHS to create a National Clinical Trials Agency.

Last December, Sir David issued the recommendations of his comprehensive review of UK health research funding, which included a new drug development pathway analogous to the US Critical Path initiative. The BIA said these proposals had the potential to revolutionise the development of medicines based on biotechnology.

The Cooksey review was just one of a raft of initiatives designed to secure the UK as a major force in global pharmaceuticals and biotech, including the UK Clinical Research Collaboration and the recent Long-Term Leadership Strategy published by the Ministerial Industry Strategy Group.