Back in 1747, a Scotsman from Edinburgh called James Lind started the first ever clinical trial to understand the causes of scurvy on the decks of HMS Salisbury. At the time, scurvy was responsible for more British deaths at sea than French or Spanish muskets combined. This short, but successful, trial revealed the benefits of citrus fruit and set in motion a new field of clinical research.
Whilst the set-up and scale of clinical research has come a long way since that first 12-man study, its purpose has not. Clinical trials exist to transform human health and help people live longer and better lives. Today, pharmaceutical companies invest £4.8bn per year on R&D efforts across the UK and for each patient enrolled in a clinical trial the NHS receives over £9,000.
This past year has demonstrated how important this work remains, with the Covid-19 pandemic elevating the progress of trials from the dusty scientific journal to the family dinner table.
At the last count, over 120 Covid-19 studies have been set-up across the country with 66,000 people in Scotland taking part in coronavirus research. Each one of these volunteers has played their part during the pandemic and today is as much about marking their efforts as it is about celebrating the scientific breakthroughs delivered from this research.
But despite this new-found fame, we are approaching a critical moment for research of almost equal importance to that first trial in the English Channel.
Whilst Covid-19 studies have thrived, research into other diseases has stalled and as the pandemic eases, this must reverse. Politicians on the Holyrood campaign trail spoke in unison about the need to re-start regular care and this must also extend to re-starting clinical research.
During the pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry pioneered new solutions to deliver trials to patients whilst reducing the burden on them and the NHS. This included shipping investigational medicinal products to volunteers and monitoring patients via video or telephone. All of these changes reduced unnecessary trips to hospital and made trials far more convenient for people giving up their time and energy to participate.
In Scotland, there are traditionally geographic and demographic barriers that prevent patients from taking part in research and retaining these Covid-19 solutions can hopefully ensure research is truly open to all.
However, this is just one part of the puzzle, with the other being the need to ensure Scotland remains an attractive location for global companies looking to place world-beating research. Before the election, the UK Government, alongside Scotland’s Chief Scientist, launched an ambitious vision for clinical trials which would see new digital solutions deployed to embed research within care.
We now need to turn these good ideas into good practice, and what better way to signal the importance of research than by agreeing a UK-wide implementation plan as one of the first acts of this new government.
Scotland has a proud history when it comes to medical innovation and by re-starting and revitalising research, the Scottish Government has an opportunity to extend this history in the post-pandemic age.
Alison Culpan, Director, The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Scotland