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From pipeline to patients: Navigating treatments through the UK system

Published on 15/06/17 at 12:07pm

Pharmafocus spoke to Karen Lightning-Jones, Integrated Franchise Leader, Pipeline, to discuss the current UK climate for successfully developing drugs to provide to patients, covering what is needed by the next government and how Switzerland provides a model to thrive outside the EU.

What does your role at Roche entail?

I work to ensure those treatments that are being developed can gain access to patients in the UK. It’s really about working to support the development programme and making sure that we have the evidence and the data to support the access.

What elements within the Roche pipeline are you excited about bringing to patients?

The aspect I find particularly exciting about the Roche pipeline is the fact that we follow the science, and our strategy allows us to approach discoveries by being flexible, agile and resilient. This is sustained by our global footprint and our unique UK structure by having both pharma development and commercial units within the UK. It’s really through the innovation and scientific discovery that we’re the number one investor in healthcare – we invest £6.5 billion in global R&D, which is in the top 10 of any industry. Of this, there was £460 million invested in R&D in the UK in 2016, which is more than any other pharmaceutical company. What this means is that we can be one step ahead in helping patients who have the most complex of conditions in areas such as neuroscience, oncology, haematology and immunology, as well as in infectious and rare diseases. One of the fantastic things, in our opinion, of the Roche pipeline is the diversity, because our ultimate goal lies with patients who are living with devastating conditions.

Central to our promise to patients is to safeguard access to medicine, so if you are asking me what I’m most excited about, then it would be the long-term commitment to our R&D investments, meaning that we can bring a large number of products that are mainly for serious diseases. This will include haemophilia A, leukaemia, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s diseases, as well companion diagnostics that go alongside these areas. These are difficult areas to treat, so it’s fantastic that we are prepared to and will invest in areas to meet such unmet need.

At the moment, we have about 153 products in our pipeline, which includes 75 new molecules and medicines, and 78 new uses for existing medicines. 60% of these are in cancer. For me, one of the most exciting areas is actually neurosciences. Our neuroscience pipeline is one of the strongest in the industry and we supply new ways of thinking to address a range of serious neurological and immunological diseases with limited or no treatment options – that includes areas such as spinal muscular atrophy, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

From a Roche perspective, we believe that the future for neuroscience treatment lies in early intervention, so treating symptoms before they materialise – that’s critical to advancing progress and preventing the degeneration before it happens. We’ve also got a really exciting pipeline addressing rare diseases but that has some significant challenges in navigating the access system.

On that note, what challenges does Roche face in promoting access to its therapies in the UK – what is the current climate like for improving patient access to treatment?

We believe that the way medicines are currently assessed in the UK could be improved to support access to patients who stand to benefit from certain treatments. Pharma companies are heavily invested in new medicines, but not all of these medicines are being recommended by NICE – this means that many patients who are in need do not get them. As I mentioned earlier, our ultimate goal is to transform the lives of patients with devastating conditions and that means we are really focused on our promise to safeguard access to medicines that we’ve worked so hard to develop. In terms of the biggest challenges that we have, the environment for introducing new treatments, and even diagnostics, is becoming increasingly demanding. This means that there are delays, and in some cases there is a restriction of access to medicines that are often the standard of care in other internationally comparative markets. Even when access is supported, it can often be patchy, with parts of the system ignoring the guidance. That means that the UK’s reputation as a country that supports the life sciences is being impacted, which could hinder the ability to undertake research to bring through a new generation of treatments and diagnostics. Ultimately, it is the patient that loses out in this situation.

What do you think would be the solution to these issues?

We’ve seen a number of policies, such as the Cancer Drugs Fund, but these often don’t present long-term solutions. Many of those challenges still need to be resolved, for example by a broader value assessment of medicine rather than just by QALY [quality-adjusted life year], which would ensure a more accurate assessment of medicines.

The upcoming general election will see many promises made – what message are you hoping to hear from the next UK government?

Whoever forms the government after the election will undoubtedly have Brexit negotiations as a top priority. We believe that the process of Brexit should, be used to determine how to establish the UK as the most competitive location to conduct research, which would benefit the economy, the healthcare services and, crucially, UK patients. Roche has outlined its future for the life sciences in the UK, and at the heart of that is the message that we should be embracing discovery and ensuring everyone can benefit from it. That means we should value science and the research, and make sure that the fruits of this are made available to patients in a safe and ethical manner. At a time of rising need for healthcare and increasing complexity of ill health, it’s extremely challenging to maintain quality, safety and outcomes, as well as enabling access to breakthrough therapies, without changing funding to the NHS. Moving forward, it’s crucially important that health services are adequately funded so that they can deliver the level of quality expected by the public and enable everyone to benefit from the innovation that is driven by the life sciences sector. The pharma industry is critical to the UK economy, as it’s the most research intensive sector in the UK, with £4.2 billion spent in R&D in 2015. We believe that if there are high levels of investment and collaboration within the pharmaceutical industry, which could mean that UK patients are the first to benefit from healthcare innovations that result from this. I think that if we can carry out research more rapidly, then the treatment can get to patients faster and we can optimise patient care.

How will Brexit impact the R&D investments put into the UK by companies such as Roche?

We want to continue to invest in our extensive R&D programmes and we believe – although it represents the most significant change in the UK’s relationship with Europe and that creates a lot of uncertainty – that it also presents a real opportunity. We see no reason why the process of leaving the EU would prevent the UK from building on the best of British science so we can address the challenges in the UK operating environment. As a company with its headquarters in Switzerland, we have significant global investment and therefore understand the importance of international trade and common approaches to tackling ill health. We also know that it’s perfectly possible for a country outside of the EU to create the conditions for drug discovery and development, as well as access to transformative healthcare. We think the UK has a unique opportunity before it, which it should seize.

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