Keynote by Professor Sir Chris Whitty at Optimum’s 15th Healthcare Investor Conference

The UK is in a pretty strong position when it comes to growing its life science sector – but there is undoubtedly room for improvement.

That was the verdict of Professor Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, and the keynote speaker at this year’s Optimum Strategic Communications Conference, which was held on Wednesday 11 October in London.

While the UK is a science powerhouse – which it proved during the Covid pandemic – Prof Whitty said changes are needed to ensure it capitalises fully on its world-class medical research.

Researchers need better access to the NHS’s huge repositories of patient data, which too often sit in separate silos.

Basic IT, like the computer on someone’s desk in an outpatients’ clinic, is sometimes old and should be upgraded.

And universities outside of the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London would do well to join forces to build start-up hubs offering vital support for life science entrepreneurs, like advice on patent law and financing.

A capacity audience packed the auditorium at the Wellcome Collection near Euston to hear Prof Whitty, who first gave a presentation about the state of the country’s health before answering questions.

There have been extraordinary shifts in the nation’s health since the 1950s, with infectious diseases largely disappearing – bar the wake-up call of Covid –  a steady decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease, and massive improvements in survival rates for some cancers but not others.

Yet now the UK – like many other countries – faces the triple headwinds of rising obesity levels, growing anti-microbial resistance, and increasing prevalence of degenerative diseases such as dementia due to its ageing population.

The burden of disease is not spread evenly across the country but concentrated in areas with poorer and older populations.

Neither is the country ageing at a uniform rate. Come 2053, London will be almost the same demographically as it is today, as young people continue to move in and families out. But the equation has to balance … all the ageing happens in the UK’s periphery.

While this could have profound consequences for how the National Health Service copes regionally in the future, it should also inform where researchers and companies conduct clinical trials. They should head to areas with older and more deprived populations because that is where disease, sadly, is always found. Increasingly, people who are ill have more than one chronic condition. Multiple morbidity is now the norm; you either have no diseases, or lots of diseases.

Turning to questions from Optimum’s Nick Bastin in a fireside chat, Prof Whitty said the UK had proved its scientific mettle during the pandemic. Among key achievements was the RECOVERY trial’s swift finding that the cheap steroid dexamethasone reduced risk of death from severe Covid by up to a third. The discovery is estimated to have saved over a million lives worldwide.

This experience demonstrated to the public, and also to the political classes, quite how good and fast the UK can be if it chooses to be. British science had changed the face of the pandemic globally.

But such success was only possible due to the approach of closing down all non-Covid research, slamming the brakes on large amounts of research – including much that participants in the room were involved in. And it has been discovered that it’s easier to stop things and a lot harder to restart them.

Turning to how the country could best foster its life science sector, Prof Whitty thought that the UK is actually in a pretty strong position relative to many other countries.

It was good on clinical trials, while the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provided a robust framework for evaluating the clinical and cost effectiveness of new treatments – although he admitted the approvals process needed to be quicker.

There are several things that need to change, and he highlighted one in particular. We have talked for a decade now of the possibility of using data, and linking it across the NHS, for basic science research.

The data exists in multiple places around the NHS system but linking it properly has proved difficult, as had convincing people and politicians of the public benefits of granting access to third parties. Collectively winning this public argument will be critical.

More simply, relatively modest investment was needed in some places to upgrade outdated IT used by frontline staff. Without this, the high-end things are not going to work.

Finally, while world-renowned institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College have well-established resources to help life science start-ups – each has dedicated accelerators – most universities do not.

Smaller universities don’t have the capacity to take things forward and he would like them to pool resources. It would be desirable to have a few regional centres in the UK that you could go to and get business expertise or patent law expertise, as well as more lab space – something that should be easily achievable.