Gene ther­apy could be what the doc­tor or­dered for drug mak­ers

A gene ther­apy fa­cil­ity is open­ing in Stevenage, with calls for more.

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page - Iain Withers re­ports

It may not be glam­orous, but Stevenage is set to be­come a world-lead­ing cen­tre for gene ther­a­pies, the new wave of pi­o­neer­ing treat­ments that hold great prom­ise for tack­ling ill­nesses such as cancer and rare dis­eases. On the out­skirts of the some­what drab Hert­ford­shire town, a Govern­ment-backed drug de­vel­op­ment fac­tory is spring­ing up that cov­ers an area the size of the pitch at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium.

It will house start-ups ded­i­cated to the fast-grow­ing branch of gene medicine, which fights ill­nesses by mod­i­fy­ing ge­netic code. It’s an ap­proach that is in its ear­li­est stages, boast­ing only a hand­ful of ap­proved treat­ments glob­ally, but in clin­i­cal tri­als has made break­throughs in tack­ling con­di­tions as var­ied as leukaemia and in­her­ited blind­ness.

The £55m fa­cil­ity, first an­nounced in Ge­orge Os­borne’s 2014 Bud­get, is a Govern­ment play for a slice of this de­vel­op­ing mar­ket. Build­ing work will com­plete within weeks and two biotech com­pa­nies – Au­to­lus and Cell Med­ica – have signed up for space, with sev­eral other firms in dis­cus­sions.

It is ex­actly the kind of high-skill man­u­fac­tur­ing the Govern­ment is des­per­ate to pro­mote and ex­port, par­tic­u­larly ahead of Brexit. It is also likely to fea­ture promi­nently when the Govern­ment’s in­dus­trial strat­egy is re­booted on Wed­nes­day, with Sir John Bell, the im­mu­nol­o­gist and ge­neti­cist, set to launch the first re­port on how to boost the £60bn life sci­ences sec­tor.

Min­is­ters will have their work cut out as the UK has too of­ten failed to trans­late med­i­cal break­throughs into block­busters made in Bri­tain. An ex­am­ple is mon­o­clonal an­ti­bod­ies, a com­mon com­po­nent of bi­o­log­i­cal drugs dis­cov­ered at Cam­bridge Univer­sity in the Sev­en­ties. It led to a No­bel Prize for the sci­en­tists in­volved and has since ex­ploded into a field worth around £70bn glob­ally to­day.

Yet just 3,000 of the 100,000 peo­ple work­ing in this area are in Bri­tain. Over the past eight years the UK’S his­toric sta­tus as a ma­jor net ex­porter of medicines has been grad­u­ally dwin­dling. Since 2009, ev­ery year bar one has seen a low­er­ing of net ex­ports of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal prod­ucts and med­i­cal de­vices, with the UK even be­com­ing a net im­porter for the first time on record in 2014, ac­cord­ing to UN trade data.

So what bar­ri­ers will in­dus­try and the Govern­ment have to over­come to make the UK a medicines man­u­fac­tur­ing pow­er­house once again? Bri­tain’s drug mak­ers out­lined a blue­print this week for do­ing just that, in a re­port en­ti­tled Man­u­fac­tur­ing Vi­sion for UK Pharma.

In it they called on govern­ment to in­vest up to £140m to build a fur­ther three drug man­u­fac­tur­ing “cen­tres of ex­cel­lence”, like the one in Stevenage.

They also urged phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firms to learn from their coun­ter­parts in the au­to­mo­tive and aero­space in­dus­tries on how to part­ner with govern­ment and pool re­search and de­vel­op­ment ef­forts. “It’s about try­ing to grow the medicine foot­print in the UK,” says Andy Evans, chair­man of the or­gan­i­sa­tion be­hind the re­port, the Medicine Man­u­fac­tur­ing In­dus­try Part­ner­ship, and head of FTSE 100 gi­ant As­trazeneca’s 3,500-strong Mac­cles­field drugs man­u­fac­tur­ing site. “These fa­cil­i­ties will act as a bridge be­tween the sci­ence and get­ting prod­ucts to mar­ket,” Evans adds. He says pub­lic sec­tor con­tri­bu­tion is es­sen­tial to “share risk” and to en­able SMES to ac­cess fa­cil­i­ties.

Both the Govern­ment and in­dus­try will be hop­ing to repli­cate the UK’S early wins in gene ther­apy, a field now boast­ing 60 firms with £1bn in­vest­ment be­hind them. Among them is Ox­ford Biomed­ica, a com­pany that has de­vel­oped a novel lentivi­ral de­liv­ery mech­a­nism for mod­i­fy­ing genes. The Aim-listed firm’s mar­ket value has jumped by al­most three quar­ters since June thanks to its part­ner­ship with Swiss con­glom­er­ate No­var­tis, which got pro­vi­sional ap­proval for a land­mark gene ther­apy for leukaemia.

All of Ox­ford Biomed­ica’s op­er­a­tions re­main in Ox­ford. “We have looked ex­ten­sively at other coun­tries,” John Daw­son, its chief ex­ec­u­tive, says. “But we are happy with what we’ve got. We’ve had a very good run of be­ing sup­ported by govern­ment.” That sup­port has in­cluded mil­lions of pounds of re­search grants. Keith Thomp­son, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Cell & Gene Ther­apy Cat­a­pult, the Govern­ment body be­hind the Stevenage fa­cil­ity, says: “We’re hop­ing that when com­pa­nies grow out of us­ing the fa­cil­ity and need a big­ger place, they’ll sim­ply build it down the road.” Scep­tics point out that a broader pack­age of poli­cies will be needed to com­pete with rival coun­tries. Dr To­bias Sil­berzahn, a part­ner at con­sul­tancy Mckin­sey & Com­pany, said: “What’s the skill level, salary level, un­rest po­ten­tial, how do salaries de­velop, how is the tech scene, and what spe­cial in­cen­tives are of­fered from govern­ment?” He adds: “If the UK wants to at­tract more drug

‘These fa­cil­i­ties will act as a bridge be­tween the sci­ence and get­ting prod­ucts to mar­ket’

‘With sup­ply chains across dif­fer­ent coun­tries, if there are ex­tra bar­ri­ers, clearly that will be a de­ter­rent’

man­u­fac­tur­ing they need to look at their tax breaks and other fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives.” In­dus­try ex­perts note pol­icy has been mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, with cor­po­ra­tion tax fall­ing and ini­tia­tives like the patent box scheme – of­fer­ing a re­duced tax rate on UK and Euro­pean patented prod­ucts – pro­vid­ing in­cen­tives. But all these con­sid­er­a­tions ig­nore the Brexit ele­phant in the room. Last month, Pas­cal So­riot, As­trazeneca’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, said all its new cap­i­tal in­vest­ment was on hold due to the cur­rent un­cer­tainty, although it is ex­pected to com­mit to a “mid-size” project in Mac­cles­field. John Roun­tree, a con­sul­tant at No­va­secta, which ad­vises both UK and Euro­pean firms, says his clients are gen­er­ally putting cap­i­tal spend­ing on hold. “With sup­ply chains across dif­fer­ent coun­tries, if there are ex­tra bar­ri­ers and pa­per­work clearly that will be a de­ter­rent.”

One com­pany that re­mains a firm be­liever in UK drug­mak­ing is GW Pharma. The com­pany – which de­vel­ops treat­ments de­rived from the cannabis plant to al­le­vi­ate the symp­toms of MS and epilepsy – grows, pro­cesses and pu­ri­fies all its cannabis in the UK. While the firm moved its list­ing from Lon­don to New York last year for fund­ing rea­sons, Adam Ge­orge, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, says: “We are proud to be a UK com­pany, and we’re scal­ing up. We plan to cre­ate 70 jobs next year and to in­vest £50m in cap­i­tal over the next three years.”

This bullish­ness is some­thing the Govern­ment is hop­ing to fos­ter more of.

Since 2009, ev­ery year ex­cept one has seen a low­er­ing of the UK’S net ex­ports of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal prod­ucts and med­i­cal de­vices, with Bri­tain be­com­ing a net im­porter for the first time in 2014

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