Professor Gino Martini, CEO of the Precision Health Technologies Accelerator (PHTA Ltd), explains how Birmingham is providing the collaborative space to simultaneously drive innovation in pharma, and tackle health inequality.
We’re hearing that the UK is running critically low on available lab space for life sciences innovation, with demand far outstripping supply and growing companies hitting a ‘development wall’ when it comes to expansion. However, much of this reporting focuses on London and the south-east and, with ‘levelling up’ still a buzzword post-Brexit, we believe that expanding lab provision in other areas will build resilience and future proof the entire UK life sciences sector.
The strengths that Birmingham and the entire Midlands region can offer to pharma, are the strengths the sector is crying out for. Not just in clinical trials design and delivery, but in basic science, drug and biomarker development, and regulatory support. In addition, Birmingham is also a ‘world within a city’, mirroring the global population in terms of its ethnic profile and socioeconomic demographics. Significantly, we’re able to recruit 25% non-white representation in most clinical trials – we’re not just perfectly placed to use our population diversity, but are actively doing it already. As an industrial pharmacist it is evident that clinical trials are the lifeblood for any pharma organisation. We now know that precision medicine in simple terms means that the right patient gets the right treatment, meaning diversity in clinical trials is pivotal for successful clinical outcomes.
Much of this activity is being led by the University of Birmingham and its co-located Birmingham Health Partners NHS Trusts, so it was natural that – when developing Birmingham Health Innovation Campus (BHIC) with Bruntwood SciTech – the University decided to establish its own flagship research facility. That initial idea has become the PHTA – an advanced suite of facilities custom-designed to support life sciences companies to start up, scale up, and flourish.
We want to create a truly multidisciplinary ecosystem where academics, clinicians and pharma experts can work under one roof as we believe co-location leads to fast-tracked collaboration and innovation.
In working with PHTA, pharma companies will have direct access to the Birmingham Centre for Clinical Trials. This centre is made up of the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit (CRCTU) – established over 30 years ago to translate cutting-edge science into improved patient care – and the Birmingham Clinical Trials Unit (BCTU), which specialises in the design, conduct and analysis of definitive clinical trials and test evaluation studies. But in establishing PHTA, we’re also introducing a new way for industry to partner with these UKCRC-accredited units on both early phase trials and practice-changing, randomised clinical trials.
Currently, these units work to answer research questions driven by clinical investigators – aiming to change practice and generate publications – and industry’s involvement is often limited to providing us with the drug product and sometimes with a small grant donation.
Our new PHTA centre, the Birmingham Precision Medicine Centre Industry Trials Hub – led by Professor Pamela Kearns – aims to change this relationship. We want to work much more closely with our industrial partners so that together we can develop clinical trials in areas of major unmet medical need and where the data generated by these trials ensures a ‘fit for filing’ pathway exists for our industrial partners.
When the hub is fully up and running, it will be a one-stop-shop – a place where industry partners will be able to come and work with the University of Birmingham and its Clinical Trials Units to deliver trials to the regulatory standards required for licencing.
PHTA will therefore act as a catalyst and a home for collaborative interactions between academics, entrepreneurs and clinicians with complementary skillsets, who’ll come together to accelerate innovation in a way that is difficult to achieve when the talent and experience is not co-located.
The people we want to work are those who see the value in co-locating with both key opinion leaders in a vast array of clinical specialties, and likeminded enterprises who are keen to collaborate for patient benefit. We are blessed to have access to experts such as Professors Paul Moss, Andrew Beggs, Alex Richter, Gary Middleton, Colin Watts, Liam Grover, Chris Green and Chris McConville to name but a few. I feel privileged to be working with such a team and to help patients access innovative medicines.
They’ll also be able to work with our NHS partners to access one of the longest-established health data ecosystems in the UK – UHB was one of the first trusts to adopt electronic health records and so has more than 20 years of data which it is beginning to link across other Midlands trusts and beyond. There’s a huge amount of willing across the region to share data and use it responsibly, for example linking genomic data together and using complementary pathways, infrastructure and governance for simplicity and security. Professors Elizabeth Sapey and Melanie Calvert are key experts in the use of such data and its applications for medicines development, regulation and access.
We also share the ambitions of the NHS and Dr Bola Owolabi to tackle health inequality from a local economy perspective and to use the PHTA and eventually all of Birmingham Health Innovation Campus as an anchor site (NHS England » The role of businesses in reducing health inequalities). It is poignant to note that a five-minute drive from our site in Selly Oak is Bournville where the Cadbury family invested in the local community and their wellbeing – as CEO for the PHTA I guarantee that we will do the same.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the BHIC development and our aspirations for pharmaceutical advancement through PHTA, head to our new website at www.phta.co.uk.