The issues facing the global community have also spurred innovation in the life sciences. Research in areas such as agricultural technology and virology could help address some of the challenges posed by climate change, which Freeman argues directly contributes to global instability. “The big geopolitical hotspots in the next few years are likely to be water, food, pandemics, energy.”
Guided by proven expertise and academic excellence
With two of the top five life science universities in the world – the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford – the UK has a solid base to invest in life science innovation. “We have really deep science that you can’t buy off the shelf,” Freeman says.
As an example, Freeman cites the MRC’s Molecular Biology Laboratory, which has 24 Nobel Prizes shared among its researchers and alumni in chemistry, medicine and physiology. In the field of chemistry, the MRC Laboratory has more Nobel Prizes than all of France. “These types of labs don’t just appear suddenly; they are incubated through layers of great science over the years,” says Freeman.
The UK has also long been home to a strong pharmaceutical industry. For example, GlaxoSmithKline can trace its history in the UK back to 1715 and now has nine manufacturing sites there. And AstraZeneca, which was formed after a merger between British and Swedish companies in 1999, has its global headquarters based in Cambridge. “We’ve had a few big pharma companies here, and they’ve stayed here,” Freeman comments, pointing to the expertise this alone has incubated in the UK.
The National Health Service leads the way
Another factor that has enabled the UK to emerge as a leader in life science R&D is the National Health Service (NHS), one of the world’s first universal healthcare systems. Dr. Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, says: “If you’re going to do large-scale longitudinal studies, following patients over time with repeated monitoring of diseases, risk factors, or outcomes for health, then you need a health care system. system that can allow you to access all relevant information and call back patients.
Such studies undertaken by the NHS have focused on issues such as long covid and cognition in people over 50. “These studies are largely a partnership with the patient, the scientists, and the clinicians,” says Wilson. However, the institutions supporting life sciences R&D in the UK do not co-exist in a vacuum. There is “a good record of collaboration across different sectors,” says Wilson. “In the life sciences there is a porosity between academia, commerce and the NHS, which really helps our R&D to succeed and deliver.”
Deliberate collaboration for cutting-edge research
This collaboration is supported by investments from the government and the charitable sector. One such global health charity, the Wellcome Trust, announced in early 2022 that it would invest £16 billion in the UK over the next 10 years in four interrelated life science areas: discovery research, infectious disease, mental health, and climate and health.