In effect, the necessities of the coronavirus crisis have ended up plugging important gaps in the national bioscience infrastructure, according to Molloy. “That is a dividend we will take from this pandemic. The enhanced ecosystem will support the next generation of companies,” he said.
Over-arching all this is a drugs regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which has proved notably agile during the pandemic. The UK was the first country in the West to formally endorse a COVID-19 vaccine when it gave a green light to Pfizer/BioNTech’s shot in early December 2020.
Nonetheless, there is still more work to do to connect all the players in the life sciences ecosystem, which is where the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) comes in. By acting as a national-scale R&D collaborator, the MDC can deploy its specialized assets, science and skills to nurture partnerships, find funding opportunities and help access other public and private sector skills across the UK.
“By connecting and helping across the life science continuum, the MDC raises the tide for everyone,” said Molloy, who helped establish the organization in 2016 and will be stepping down in September 2021.
“In the pandemic, we’ve seen the UK can do amazing things when there is a singularity of purpose. We need to take the culture of that into our recovery period because we can apply the same singularity of purpose in other areas – whether that is a war on cancer or disease associated with aging or the causes of obesity.”
In particular, the MDC works hard to industrialize and deploy new products and services through translational research, which involves leveraging emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, complex cell models and the latest advances in biological imaging systems. The aim is simple: to reduce the attrition rate as experimental compounds move through the development process.
“If you can be more predictive in the lab, then you can be more productive in the clinic,” Molloy said.
Maximizing this opportunity involves tapping into the UK’s thriving life sciences service and supply sector, which accounts for 90% of the industry’s small and medium-sized employment. That nexus of world-class support companies can help academics take ideas to the next level, assist drug developers to devise smarter ways of working and, ultimately, encourage more medicines to be developed in Britain rather than overseas.
All of which should shore up a sector that the government is relying on to deliver economic growth as Britain carves out its post-Brexit future.
Crucially, of course, the life sciences industry also needs a continuing flow of talent. The good news is that more young Britons are now taking science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects at university than ever before – and Molloy believes COVID-19 will fuel that trend.
“In today’s world there is a much more porous membrane between academia and industry, creating a pull that goes back through colleges and into schools,” he said. “The pandemic has shown that science really matters and, hopefully, that has ignited something in the hearts and minds of youngsters who are trying to decide what to do with their lives.”
Ben Hirschler is a Senior Advisor based in Brunswick’s London office and a former global pharmaceuticals correspondent for Reuters.