The Head of Virtual Drug Discovery at the Medicines Discovery Catapult writes about the UK’s industrial private sector drug discovery capabilities: "The UK is well positioned to take advantage of, and develop new markets for, the provision of virtual drug discovery services, connected through its experts and service providers".
The UK is home to a vibrant biopharma industry, including global ‘big pharma’ and a plethora of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The UK has an enviable record in discovering new medicines: responsible for 25% of the most successful medicines ever made. It also has impressive depth in clinical development, scientific and data innovations that enable them. These are highly valuable assets that Medicines Discovery Catapult is putting at the service of the UK industry. Packaging this expertise and infrastructure as a valuable export product that can build and maintain strong international R&D linkages post-Brexit is increasingly important.
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The UK’s industrial private sector drug discovery capabilities are strengthened by world-class research focussed universities, and centres of scientific and technical excellence. In addition, advances in computational power and development of ‘game changing’ technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have the potential to transform the industry. The UK is again taking a leading role in this revolution.
However, at a time of considerable change for the UK, our future position with existing partners and markets is unknown. The global competition for healthcare innovation is highly competitive. This provides new and significant opportunities for export growth in commercial sectors where our intellectual capital and service sectors are a scarce and valuable global resource.
The historical image drug discovery conjures up is of a lone scientist in a lab coat, pushing the boundaries of science in the pursuit of a breakthrough or blockbuster that will transform patient care. However, drug discovery is very much a team sport, requiring active participation, each with substantial knowledge, expertise and experience across a diverse set of disciplines. These include fundamental and clinical science, discovery technology, chemistry, toxicology, data analytics, regulation, manufacturing, supply chain logistics and commercial know-how. Development of a new drug also requires huge investments in time and energy. Even in the most productive of companies the success rate of this process is only 30%.
Increasingly, drug discovery has moved from a fully integrated model (with the majority of the disciplines available in-house), to one which can be accessed through a virtual, or fully outsourced model. Often it is an individual or small team who act as champions through the inevitable setbacks along the way. Dipping into pools of expertise, steer the project through multiple external providers and collaborators.
Pharmaceutical site closures and portfolio consolidations have resulted in the displacement of these highly experienced management staff and many of the internal experts. Many of them have dissipated across the services sector; growing existing contract research organisations, forming new companies focussed on providing niche products and services, or establishing themselves as expert consultants, fragmented across the nation.