Life sciences conference report: Finding the right formula for further advances

The post-pandemic crisis in the NHS provides a great opportunity to introduce big new healthcare ideas, an expert told The Scotsman’s annual Life Sciences Conference.

The Scotsman Life Sciences conference 2022. Picture Phil Wilkinson
The Scotsman Life Sciences conference 2022. Picture Phil Wilkinson

Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, Scotland’s Chief Scientist (Health), said: “The NHS needs to stay healthy for our future, and it’s not at the moment – that’s the truth. “But every problem brings with it a unique opportunity, and the huge pressures on health and social care post Covid means that everyone is ready for urgent disruption.”

This “burning platform” opens up the opportunity for innovation, which is “an enabler for recovery, reform and sustainability”, Dominiczak told the event. She added: “There is a lot of innovation, but it is slightly disorganised. There must be a clear pathway from initial discovery to adoption.”

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One way forward, she suggested, would be to use regional test beds and link them up with the “Tech Scalers” proposed by Scotland’s first chief entrepreneur, Mark Logan, to allow life sciences to link up with – and benefit from – entrepreneurship in the technology industry.

Dominiczak continued by saying it is crucial to have a “Once for Scotland” approach to innovation – so that great ideas are used in all 14 health boards in a similar way, not introduced piecemeal: “We need to consider radical innovations which can be quickly adopted across Scotland. We need to simplify the way of doing that without losing the quality control.”

Dominiczak, who took up her post in July, used three examples of potential “quick wins” – digital dermatology, where patients send in pictures of their symptoms, which could reduce in-person appointments by up to 70 per cent; a technology-based closed loop system for patients with Type-1 diabetes; and a genetic test to reduce the amount of people hospitalised by adverse reactions to medicines, which currently account for 11 per cent of all hospital admissions.

There would need to be “prioritisation and selection” of the best innovations, she told the conference, saying no-one could promise that the right choices would always be made: “We need to be prepared to fail, which is difficult in current times, but it is vital to have a highrisk appetite. If we do not take risks, we are not going to innovate.”

The conference heard that Scotland’s life sciences industry is now worth £7.4 billion, and set to smash through its £8bn turnover target by 2025.

Dave Tudor, speaking as a board member of digital transformation consultancy DTG, said that a culture change to embrace digitalisation is crucial to future life sciences success.

He added: “If we do digital right, we get drugs to patients much more quickly, reduce their cost by 30-50 per cent and reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. It can be a differentiator.” At the moment, he said, adoption of digital technology is “good, bad and ugly – companies doing well, just starting out, and burying their heads in the sand”.

He explained: “No-one has fully cracked it. Members of leadership teams often have different ideas on how to proceed with digital transformation, and unless they find a common approach, they will lose money and momentum.

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“Manufacturing is still relying on human beings and paperwork and needs to be controlled in a much more sophisticated way.”

Tudor also said it was vital not to “leave the back door open” to thousands of cyber attacks aimed at stealing innovation and intellectual property.

His former employer, GSK, suffered more than 20,000 cyber attacks every year, he added.

Yvonne Crabbe, head of people strategy execution at Merck, also addressed the conference, saying the life sciences industry had to embrace digital because clients expected it.

Merck started out with a team of five in its digital and automation programme and now had 20 people, she added.

Alison McIntosh, director of SULSA, the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance, told delegates that there are large numbers of graduates coming out of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees in Scotland, but they were not being funnelled effectively enough into STEM jobs.

She feels there is still more to do to ensure graduates have the right skills to work in life sciences, adding: “We need universities to take more responsibility for skills and not just knowledge.” There is also a shortage of internships available in industry, McIntosh observed.

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However, she stressed that there is some great work being done on virtual and augmented reality training across the sector, which is having a positive impact on potential recruits.

Mark Cook, co-chair of the Industry Leadership Group at Life Sciences Scotland, said there needs to be a more efficient “front door” entry point to life sciences, so newcomers know where to look for advice and support.

“There is tremendous support for every corner of life sciences, but it can be a challenge [finding that door] in the first place, and we need to do better.”

However, John Arthur, director of CPI’s Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, said that the collaborative nature of the industry means this could be overcome. He advised: “Don’t worry about which door you walk in, we can help. We might not always know the answer, but we will know someone who does – because we all talk.”

Cook agreed with the benefits of this approach, saying: “We are all mentors in this industry; everyone knows something that someone else will be grateful to know about.”

Expand and thrive

The growth of the life sciences sector means Scotland needs to create the infrastructure for a much larger industry than expected, chair Alix Mackay told the conference.

She said physical hubs were “fundamental” to this and there had been real progress, including BioHub in Aberdeen, which is focused on embedding an entrepreneurial culture in life sciences. Deborah O’Neil, chair of the Opportunity North East life sciences board, highlighted the success of north-east companies – such as her own NovaBiotics – as well as Elasmogen, and TauRx, which raised a further $119 million in funding this year to support regulatory submissions in the UK, US and Canada, and to prepare for market availability.

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The company is due to present phase-3 findings at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease event in San Francisco this week. “Entrepreneurship is fundamental to the success of life sciences to ensure it fulfils its potential and delivers social and economic benefit,” O’Neil told the conference.

“It’s about being able to commercialise fantastic ideas and innovation.” The £40m BioHub, due to open in Aberdeen next spring, is “the physical core of the entrepreneurial ecosystem”, O’Neil added.

Another organisation which has created a new base in Scotland is CGT (cell and gene therapy) Catapult, which has opened up in Edinburgh’s BioQuarter.

Jacqueline Barry, its chief clinical officer, told delegates its role was to de-risk innovation, and work with policy-makers, regulators and payers to speed up the development and adoption of advanced therapies.

John Arthur, director of the CPI’s Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC), which officially opened this week near Glasgow Airport, said MMIC provides clean room facilities to help the pharma industry make manufacturing processes more efficient, with the aim of “delivering economic benefit and making medicines more widely available and more affordable.”

He said the two key factors in improving productivity are the efficient physical movement of materials and the effective capture, analysis and use of data.

There is a huge waste of time and money in products being stored for long periods in warehouses, he added: “We are not slick and efficient enough in the supply chain, and we need to use data to do much better – that’s a lot of what we’re doing at MMIC.”

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Mark Cook of Life Sciences Scotland said physical hubs are crucial in providing “appropriate places for people with great ideas to move into and get support from like-minded peers, to help you to thrive”. Central hubs could reduce a firm’s initial financial outlay by providing facilities, advice and support, he added.