The UK’s new Office for Life Sciences (OLS) has been tasked by the government to take action by end-July to “make a real difference to the operating environment for life sciences companies.”

The virtual Office will work with the government departments responsible for the pharmaceutical, medical biotechnology and devices sectors to address a range of key issues, including: - what steps can be to improve access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and to stimulate investment in the life sciences industry; - how the National Health Service (NHS) can be more effective as a champion of innovation; - possible ways of getting medicines onto the market faster; - how the UK can become a more attractive base for clinical trials; - and how to effectively market the industry globally.

A number of these issues were raised in the Review and Refresh of Bioscience 2015 (BIGTR2), published earlier this year by the Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team (BIGT) headed by Sir David Cooksey to examine progress made since the Group forecast in 2003 that by 2015, the UK medical bioscience sector would have secured its position as a global leader, with a “core of large, profitable, world-class companies.” In 2009, this vision now looks “somewhat overoptimistic,” commented BIGTR2.

Working with industry groups, the OLS will coordinate national policy and seek to build a sustainable and integrated life sciences industry. A joint Industry Strategy for the Life Sciences will be published this summer.
The Office will be led by Science and Innovation Minister Lord Drayson, who as a businessman co-founded the Oxford-based drug delivery company PowderJect and was its chief executive until the firm was acquired by Chiron in 2003.

Discussing the initiative, Lord Drayson said that life sciences will have “a vital contribution to make as we come through this recession – therefore it is essential that the industry is in a position to flourish.” Emphasising the government’s commitment to safeguarding the industry’s future – “creating an environment where everyone from large pharmaceuticals to small biotech and medical tech companies can prosper” – he added: “we must focus on rebalancing the economy towards those sectors where we have a competitive advantage and opportunity to be a global leader.”

Industry groups have welcomed the initiative, with ABPI director-general Richard Barker pointing out that the UK is facing fierce competition from around the world and that, if it is to continue to be a leader, swift and coordinated action is necessary. “The government needs to protect and build the UK’s scientific talent base and do all it can to encourage the NHS to be a champion of innovation by speeding up access to new medicines and boosting clinical trials,” said Dr Barker.

Aisling Burnard, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association (BIA), added that of particular importance to the biotech sector are the initiative’s proposals to reinvigorate financing for bioscience companies. Many such firms in the UK are now starved of cash and are having to cut projects in order to survive, she said.

The OLS was first announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown at an industry summit on January 27. In a speech given to the Royal Society shortly after in which he discussed the proposals, Lord Drayson said that the UK’s industrial base in life sciences is second only to that in the US but the sector is facing major challenges, with Big Pharma experiencing declining R&D productivity and biotech suffering a capital funding drought.

Moreover, he added that, while the quality and number of science innovations from UK universities has never been higher, and the investment opportunities for spin-outs never better, not enough of the latter have grown into large high added-value manufacturers. “Now the lack of capital and credit is threatening to choke off growth in the high-tech sector – just when we need it most,” he said.

However, he also described the NHS as “an amazing resource for fostering research and innovation in patient care, drug discovery, medical devices and services, that we have only just begun to realise.”

- The OLS is being created within the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), with initial staff secondments from departments including the Department of Health, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) and the Treasury. Through the initiative, the government is working closely with the ABPI, BIA, the Association of British Healthcare Industries (ABHI), the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association (BIVDA) and others, and is encouraging companies to get involved via their trade associations.