Comment: Scotland is tailor-made for precision medicine

Some treatments dont work at all for many patients or cause nasty side effects, says Harbison.
Some treatments dont work at all for many patients or cause nasty side effects, says Harbison.
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If I had a penny for every time I’ve been asked what stratified medicine is, I’d be rich.

Put simply, because people respond differently to medication depending on their genes, stratified medicine – drugs specifically targeted to a person’s genetic make-up rather than a “one size fits all” approach - will help get the right treatment to the right person at the right time. This is obviously good news for patients and has the potential to save the NHS substantial sums of money. But what does stratified medicine, which is often referred to as precision medicine, mean for business?

Some drugs work for a significant proportion of the population, but other treatments don’t work at all for many patients or cause nasty side effects – a drug that cures one person could be toxic to another. Statins, for example, are commonly used to treat cholesterol but have a failure rate as high as 70 per cent.

Current treatments for pancreatic cancer only work for a small fraction of patients. The cost of all this ineffective treatment mounts up, and this is driving the Scottish and UK governments to invest huge sums into the development of precision medicine. More effective medicine will ultimately lead to increased economic output.

At SMS-IC we like to think of ourselves as the lynchpin that unites everything in the precision medicine ecosystem. We are an industry-led healthcare innovation hub in precision medicine - one of eight Scottish innovation centres that encourage collaboration between academia and industry, which supports business performance and creates economic value for Scotland.

We want to help SMEs in our sector to scale up, by providing expert advice, support and funding that will help businesses leverage other funding and grow. According to Scottish Enterprise, there are more than 150 companies involved in precision medicine here in Scotland with a turnover of £1.9 billion, employing more than 9,000 people.

There are so many reasons why Scotland is an ideal location for a “cluster” of precision medicine companies. It has a small, stable population, a single unified health system, world-renowned universities, some of the best health data in the world, not to mention a high incidence of complex disease – all the right ingredients for making new discoveries in precision medicine.

Inward investment is encouraged here, and research and development support from Scottish Enterprise is helping companies like BioClavis – a spin-out from Californian molecular profiling company BioSpyder – set up home at the Clinical Innovation Zone at the QEU Hospital in Glasgow.

Then we have home-grown SMEs such as Glasgow’s ClinTec, which is now in more than 50 countries. Censo Biotechnologies in Edinburgh is using stem cell technology to predict how drugs will behave across a given population. Biopharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has also selected Scotland as one of a handful of major centres for its global genomics initiative that aims to sequence two million genomes globally and apply that data toward developing new medicines.

Our purpose is to bring together leading experts from NHS Scotland, four Scottish Universities - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen - and industrial partners such as ThermoFisher Scientific and Aridhia. We work with a range of organisations, including pharma and biotech companies in need of research and clinical development support, and healthcare providers looking to improve treatment options.

At SMS-IC we are working with our partners on precision medicine programmes across major disease areas, including ovarian, pancreatic and oesophageal cancers, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. I believe that precision medicine will soon become a common feature of healthcare. Thanks to our growing Scottish precision medicine cluster, this new world could be closer than you think.

Diane Harbison is chief executive of the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre