Across life sciences, the need to develop treatments and vaccines for Covid-19 has been driving collaboration – bringing private, public and third sectors together. In Rishi Sunak’s spending review last year, he pledged to grow the UK public sector investment in research and development from £14.8bn to £22bn. To compete internationally, by 2024 the UK aims to invest 2.4 per cent of GDP in R&D. Greater private sector investment and collaboration will be needed to achieve this. Embedding new ways of working will be crucial for delivering on the potential for patients.
The development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is a perfect example of cross-sectoral collaboration. A long-term Oxford programme was redirected to make a Covid-19 vaccine; clinical trials were delivered through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), scaled by AstraZeneca and accelerated by NHS Digital.
The urgency and scale of Covid-19 made this collaboration a necessity. Academics, patients, charities, businesses, regulators and governments started working towards a common goal. This brought new ways of working: agile prioritisation, user-led design, accelerated regulation, and a focus on process improvement. Something remarkable happened – a new understanding and respect for the priorities and expertise of other sectors emerged.
In the last 18 months, improved access to data has been critical for the transformation of the life sciences ecosystem, with a focus on using NHS data for research, improving the approach to data infrastructures and access across NHS systems.
In 2019, NHS DigiTrials was set up and tasked with developing data services to enable clinical trials to benefit patients. It is a consortium of NHS Digital, IBM, University of Oxford and Microsoft. It was able to unite skills in service design, data architecture, data governance and business operating models with experience in clinical trials, patient involvement and regulatory processes. The team developed the data architecture and algorithms to quickly identify cohorts of patients for research to determine trial feasibility.
The collaboration enabled some of Covid–19 treatments, which are estimated to have saved over a million lives, such as dexamethasone and tocilizumab to be trialled at a speed unheard of prior to the pandemic.
Using data intelligently can save lives and usher in a new era of scientific discovery. It is critical to evolve existing data services and regulatory processes for the NHS to enable this approach for other diagnoses. Increasing the availability of healthcare data, combined with the power of AI to draw insights from it, means that science can move from testing hypotheses to generating them. Building cohorts of data will allow us to take the lead in applying AI transparently for the benefit of patients. But this point is crucial: we must be clear about the protections in place for data security, and we must make clear what we are doing with data and when, to ensure confidence and trust in the system.
Without it, all of our best efforts could fail. Transparency was a hallmarks of NHS DigiTrials, with patient groups involved in decision-making. The government’s life sciences vision shows its intention to maximise the potential of health data, but without this trust, gains will be lost.
There is a compelling case investment in the UK’s life sciences and that 2.4 per cent may be within reach, but it must be done with privacy and trust at its core.