It’s easy to be wowed by the potential of precision medicine. By analysing a patient’s genes and harnessing the latest imaging technology, clinicians aim to give the right treatment at the right time, shedding the current scattergun approach of trying various medicines or therapies until they find the one that works best for a given individual.
What’s not so easy is to translate precision medicine’s innovations into standard clinical practice. Sometimes industry and the NHS have very different ideas about what needs to be developed and how it should work. Glasgow is at the heart of bringing those ideas together, led by the partnership of the University of Glasgow and NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde.
The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Govan – which opened in 2015 on the site of the former Southern General Hospital – already brings together academics, clinicians and industrialists on a single campus to develop precision medicine.
Now plans are afoot to create a “living laboratory” on the site, where the three groups can work in harmony to take the ideas that are being developed and put them into practice to help patients in the hospital and further afield. Taking ideas from the laboratory to the bedside is the final link in the precision medicine chain.
A consortium of 14 partners has been formed to take forward proposals for the “living laboratory”. It consists of the University of Glasgow, Glasgow City Council, NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Scottish Enterprise, the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC), plus industrial partners including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Canon Medical, Siemens and BioClavis.
The short-listed group received seed-corn finance from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the national science funding agency, alongside 23 other projects, to develop a bid to the UK Government’s Strength in Places Fund, which supports economic growth in specific localities. Between four and eight projects will receive between £10 million and £50m each.
“Creating a living laboratory at the QEUH campus is the natural next step for precision medicine,” says Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, vice-principal and head of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences at the University of Glasgow. “We already have the talent, the facilities and the research – now all we need is the funding.
“Our ‘triple helix’ model has already been shown to work, bringing together clinicians, academics and industrialists on the same site. The next stage is to take that expertise and bring it to patients in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas. Opening the living laboratory in Glasgow won’t just benefit the city but also the whole of Scotland. Companies, universities and health boards from around the country will be able to form partnerships and take part in the projects in Glasgow.”
The economic case for the living laboratory was highlighted earlier this year with the publication of the UK government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s Science & Innovation Audit (SIA) of precision medicine in Scotland. It highlighted work being carried out at the QEUH campus, including treatments for brain tumours, dementia and multiple sclerosis. The SIA outlined the strengths of the cluster in Glasgow, including the QEUH’s status as the largest hospital in Europe, and NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde being the biggest health board in the UK – giving the laboratory the scale needed to transition its successes to a national and international level.
The audit also highlighted the campus’s unique features, including the £1 billion already invested in the hospital and the integration on the site of major precision medicine infrastructure, including the SMS-IC, the Imaging Centre of Excellence, the Clinical Innovation Zone, and facilities for clinical trials.
“We already knew that Scotland was a great place for precision medicine – now we have the SIA to prove it,” says Dominiczak, pictured left. “By adopting a ‘Team Scotland’ approach, we’ve created firm foundations for the launch of the living laboratory.”
One of the project’s key planks is the development of fifth-generation (5G) mobile phone services in Glasgow. Proposals are being developed to turn the QEUH into a test bed for 5G, which should attract small businesses to the site.
“Nokia has been working closely with the University of Glasgow and the city council over the past year in developing proposals for a 5G test bed covering the West End Innovation District,” says Charlie Swan, an account manager for global enterprise and the public sector at the telecoms giant, in the SIA. “Glasgow is well-positioned to become a world-leading centre of excellence for the trialling of 5G technologies.
“We are excited by the SIA proposal to develop the QEUH campus as a living lab, and the introduction of a 5G network in the city will be critical in providing the necessary bandwidth and computing power to implement precision medicine in Scotland.”
As well as delivering benefits for patients and cost savings for the NHS, the living laboratory would also bring financial benefits to Govan and the wider Scottish economy. The project is expected to create around 500 local jobs and add between £150m and £200m of gross value over 15 years.
The living laboratory would not only seek to attract large multinational companies to the site but also encourage start-ups and spin-outs to bring their ideas to the premises so they can be tested and, if feasible, utilised in the hospital.
Harnessing the economic benefits of scientific research and innovation is the key aim of the Strength in Places Fund.
‘More friendly and inclusive than San Diego’
After working in the life sciences hotspot surrounding San Diego in California, Harper VanSteenhouse has been really impressed with the quality of the staff he has been able to recruit for BioClavis, a Glasgow-based personalised diagnostics spin-out from US company BioSpyder Technologies.
“None of them wear sandals to work yet, but they know it’s an option,” jokes BioClavis’ president.
“I’m the only member of staff who has come from the States – the rest of our team have been recruited locally.”
BioClavis has grown rapidly and already has 14 employees, compared with 30 at its sister company back in the US.
BioSpyder Technologies looked at locations in Northern Ireland and Switzerland before deciding to launch BioClavis in Glasgow.
As well as the high-calibre staff available in Scotland, the company was also attracted by the clinical expertise and the tissue samples it needed to do its development work.
The business – which is based at the Clinical Innovation Zone at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus – is conducting internal research and development programmes as well as being involved in projects with the NHS in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The projects are using BioClavis’s TempO-Seq technology to create diagnostic tests that will determine the best course of treatment for patients at a lower cost.
“We’ve received massive support from the life sciences community in Scotland,” VanSteenhouse adds.
“It is obviously smaller, but in terms of friendliness and inclusivity, it’s on a par with San Diego – maybe even better.”
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