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George Freeman: UK pharma is vital for our landscape

Published on 01/12/14 at 07:55am
Freeman image
George Freeman speaking at November's ABPI conference

The ABPI says the UK has an opportunity to benefit from stratified medicine, and the body’s 2014 conference held in London in November spoke of the many prospects and difficulties the subject raises – especially in therapy areas. 

To discuss the subject Pharmafile caught up with George Freeman MP who holds the title of being the UK’s first ever life sciences minister, as well as looking at his plans to create a UK landscape that is attractive for investment. 

Appointed back in July, Freeman has made it his mission to make the UK the best place in the world to discover and develop 21st century healthcare innovations. He says the significance of large UK pharma companies cannot be underestimated, as they make a ‘massive contribution’. 

At this year’s annual ABPI R&D event ‘Stratified Medicine: Discovery to Patient – Mind the Gap’, Freeman said: “The life sciences strategy that we set out was all about saying, look this industry is changing and we need to change with it. 

“We can’t rely on our 20th century leadership in deep science and our strong big pharma footprint, although valuable and crucial as they are, we have to build a 21st century healthcare innovation economy in which our NHS is pumping alongside our industry supporting it.”

Stratified medicine in the NHS

According to an ABPI report on the subject that was married to the conference, there is a rising number of products outside of cancer in development, and some are already making a difference in the NHS.

It notes that while 61% of doctors polled said there was a ‘high interest’ in emerging uses of these medicines, only 25% of them felt there was ‘good access’ to them on the NHS. Around 40% of respondents said the NHS is achieving ‘little or no’ benefit from non-cancer stratified medicine, but 32% thought they give patients access to treatments they otherwise would not have had.

The report suggests the eventual aim of a stratified approach to medicine is to enable healthcare professionals to provide the “right treatment, for the right person, at the right dose, at the right time”. 

The ABPI announced in its report that 90% of clinicians and other health professionals expect non-cancer stratified medicine “to have a positive impact on the health system in the UK”. Yet a whopping 98% of them said there are ‘significant challenges’ to their implementation, with 90% suggesting that the NHS will need to change to do so effectively.

Freeman said: “There’s a series of problems at the moment, to get a product to market you have to go through the regulator, then you have to go through NICE, you have to go through adoption by clinicians. The patchy implementation of NICE guidance is a real problem and it’s one that we are in active discussion with NHS England about.”

The MP added: “We are absolutely committed to the existence of NICE, they led the world in the 20th century model of health economics and we’re really inviting them here to take this opportunity to update their models to deal with the challenges that the 21st century model is creating.”

On the eve of the conference the MP made his announcement that his government will look into how it can speed up patients’ access to cost-effective innovative new treatments and diagnostics.

Set to be published in the summer next year, the ‘Innovative Medicines and Med Tech Review’ will cover a range of issues including providing drugs based on stratified medicine, and digital health technologies.

Freeman said: “This is an open ended review in which we are asking the question, what does the UK landscape for earlier adoption of innovative medicines and digitalised and personalised devices need to look like? 

“That pull through of quicker access through to patients to prove and validate innovations of both drugs and companion diagnostic and really that pull through we know is the central challenge, that’s where we have got to really focus in this next phase.”

The review will examine the pathway from first in human trials, through licensing and health technology appraisal, to commissioning, reimbursement and clinical practice. It is also expected that the evaluation will recognise the public spending environment in which the NHS operates and “the overriding need to ensure value for money", according to Freeman. 

UK pharma vital for national economic growth

We caught up with Freeman post-speech and he told us that the significance of UK-based big pharma firms cannot be underestimated. “They make a massive contribution to the UK landscape, not just in their own footprint via employment and pipeline, but in the wider impact they have on the eco-system, professional standards and career development.” 

He continued: “This sector is global, most of our big pharma companies are truly global, and so my focus will be on making sure that we’re putting in place a landscape that is attractive for investment because it deals with underlying fundamental challenges that this industry faces.”

One such challenge involves avoiding potential overseas mergers and acquisitions of UK-based pharma firms. Commenting on big foreign investors with money to spend, Freeman said: “In terms of takeovers we don’t want to get in the way of the functioning of the market and the way this sector has to evolve. 

“But we do want to make sure that companies are able to make a commitment to do their R&D here in the UK. I would summarise that we are in a position in which we are enlightened in terms of understanding how this sector works in terms of mergers and acquisitions. But we are very focussed on wanting to see commitment to developing medicines in this sector.” 

Change in the industry is certainly something many want to see. Ongoing reports covering job losses and widespread M&A activity hardly characterise a landscape in good health. These factors could ultimately all contribute to the start of a process that may well change this sector forever. 

According to a recent report by Dr Kees de Joncheere of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the current system adopted by the industry has served well in terms of developing new medicines – but the body suggests that over the past 10-20 years there have been very little breakthroughs in terms of innovation. 

It also says many scientists believe that typically of the 20 or 30 new drugs brought to the market each year, only three are genuinely new – with the rest offering only marginal benefits.

Drilling down the numbers

The cost of developing stratified medicines is high, typically $1.5 - $2.5 billion (£900 million - £1.5 billion). The process of stratification and any resulting HTA processes can indeed weigh heavily upon any developing pharma company, but the ABPI insists that the medicines will offer significant benefits to the healthcare system and UK. 

It says the discovery, development and use of stratified medicines requires a balanced ecosystem based around all stakeholders working together. 

Expanding on this, Freeman told Pharmafile: “In the new landscape we will have fewer one size fits all blockbusters. We want them, and we hope there will be more, but more of our medicines are going to be targeted, stratified, some of them ultimately personalised and that’s going to be profoundly disruptive to the landscape and we welcome it. We are trying to put together a landscape in Britain that welcomes it.” 

With the upcoming general election in May 2015 the current government is well aware that access to treatments is an issue for British voters, as the ABPI would acknowledge. Freeman’s opportunistic announcements arrive at a time of industry uncertainty, but hopefully they will indeed take hold and lead to further investment and prospects. 

Freeman told us: “It’s great news that we’re getting more investment coming in, and that the production in pharma R&D footprint globally, has this year been halted, R&D pharma footprint in the UK has held steady. We know that unless we build and integrate the landscape into the NHS we will struggle to secure investment long-term. 

“We launched the NHS Innovation Health & Wealth strategy, an innovation scorecard and we set up the academic health science networks to try and drive best practice out more quickly. But I recognise we’ve got more to do,” Freeman concluded.

Tom Robinson

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