While the pharmaceutical industry in the UK has far and away the largest pipeline in Europe, with nearly three times as many products in development as its nearest rival France, that lead is even more pronounced in certain key therapeutic categories, a new report shows.

According to the report commissioned by government agency UK Trade & Investment and published by Cambridge Healthcare & Biotech, the UK has an overall pharmaceutical pipeline – spanning right from preclinical trials to product registration – of 640 medicines, compared with 366 in Japan, 331 in Canada, 293 in France and 264 in Germany. Still a long way ahead of all of these is the USA, with a total of 2,592 products in development.

On the UK front, the emphasis is still very much on early-stage development, with 321 products at the preclinical stage, 102 in Phase I clinical trials, 145 in Phase II, 50 in Phase III, 15 at the pre-registration stage and seven already registered. In comparative terms, though, the rate of attrition is not that different from in the US, where there are 1,117 products in preclinical trials, 445 in Phase I, 715 in Phase II, 220 in Phase III, 60 in pre-registration and 35 actually registered.

Around 35% of the overall drug development pipeline in Europe was discovered in the UK, CH&B points out. What consolidates this lead is a dominance of key therapy areas, such as oncology, respiratory diseases and vaccines.

Of the 34 therapy areas currently under development in Europe, the UK has the strongest pipeline in 26, CH&B says. In the respiratory category, more than half of the current European pipeline was discovered by UK companies. This consists of 54 products in active development by 12 firms in the UK – five of them by Vectura and four by Synairgen.

Strong presence in vaccines, oncology, CNS

UK companies also have a strong presence in vaccines, with a total of 52 products under active development by seven companies. Acambis and Genvax account for seven of these vaccines apiece. Of the total European vaccine pipeline, 42% was discovered by UK companies, the CH&B report shows.

Oncology is another area in which UK companies outperform their European rivals, generating 41% of the overall European pipeline. There are currently 135 oncology products in active development by 30 companies in the UK, eight of them by Antisoma and seven by Astex Therapeutics.

More than a third of the European pipeline for diseases of the central nervous system originates from the UK, with a total of 136 products in active development by 34 companies. Amarin takes the prize here, with six CNS products in development, while CeNeS Pharmaceuticals has four in its pipeline.

One of the reasons the UK still has a comparatively healthy pipeline – despite all the jeremiads about the country losing its footing in the scramble for better, cheaper, faster pharmaceutical research and development – is the quality of its universities, CH&B suggests.

In an academic ranking of European institutions by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, Cambridge University came out first, followed by Oxford, Imperial College London and University College London in second, third and fourth positions respectively. The University of Manchester was also in the top 10 at number nine.