Gene therapy could be what the doctor ordered for drug makers
A gene therapy facility is opening in Stevenage, with calls for more.
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