[ 12 July 2018 ]

Medical research
How Britain's love of the laboratory has improved lives across the world

University research + the NHS + charities + patient groups + strong industrial base + history of breakthroughs = a powerful formula

Medical Research

Drug discoverers

Approximately 25 per cent of the world’s top 100 prescription medicines were discovered and developed in the UK.

Teach first

Six out of the world’s top 20 universities for clinical and pre-clinical studies are in the UK: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL, King’s College, Edinburgh.

The UK is second only to the USA in terms of training the number of medical science graduates. Some 16,000 students from other EU countries are registered on biomedical courses at UK higher education institutions - 6,500 are postgraduates.

History of breakthroughs

The UK has a long and illustrious history in medical research. Quick, name some. Penicillin. DNA. DNA fingerprinting. Sequencing the genome.

OK, so you make it into the pub quiz team. But there are many others.

Sir Roy Calne, one of the great pioneers of organ transplants, completed the world’s first heart, lung and liver transplant at (now Royal) Papworth hospital in Cambridge.

Louise Brown, the world’s first baby to be conceived by IVF, was born in Oldham 40 years ago this year. The world’s first boy conceived by IVF, Alastair MacDonald was born on 14 January 1979 in Glasgow.

MRI imaging and scanning has revolutionised diagnostic medicine; one of its pioneers was Sir Peter Mansfield, who started work as a printer’s apprentice in Southwark.

Randomised control trials (RCTs), which are the gold standard of clinical trial design, started in the UK in the 1940s. The Medical Research Council’s study of the use of streptomycin in treating tuberculosis is generally accepted as the first RCT. (Hats off to the remarkable but not terribly well-known Sir Austin Bradford Hill.)


Healthy data for healthy research

One of the UK’s important long-standing advantages in this field is its unparalleled collection of large-scale population cohort studies. The 1946 birth cohort study is the longest continually running study of its kind in the world. These resources provide exceptionally rich data and are typically available as an open access resource.

The English cancer registry, for example, is regarded as world-leading in its data collection, analysis and research.

UK Biobank and Genomics England are two important new large-scale data infrastructure projects. Between 2006-2010, UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people aged between 40-69 to take part; they provided blood, urine and saliva samples and other measures, detailed information about themselves and agreed to have their health followed. The result is a major health resources to help scientists discover why some people develop particular diseases and others do not. Genomics England is sequencing 100,000 genomes from 70,000 people, focused on patients with rare diseases, their families, and patients with cancer.

I am the egg man. We are the egg women.

The UK continues to be a leader in fertility research. The HFEA - the independent regulator of fertility treatment in the UK - was the world’s first statutory body of its type. The UK became the first country to approve laws to allow the use of new techniques to reduce the risk of mitochondrial diseases and the HFEA gave the world’s first mitochondrial licence to Newcastle Fertility Centre.


The Nobel Prize factory

No fewer than 15 of the scientists of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge have been awarded Nobel Prizes since it was set up in 1962. Put another way, that’s winning one every four years. The most recent winner was Dr Richard Henderson, who jointly won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Professor Jacques Dubochet and Dr Joachim Frank (an alumnus of the Laboratory) “for developing cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.”

The Francis Crick

Looming behind the British Library and St Pancras railway station, housing 1,250 scientists and a further 250 staff, the mighty Francis Crick Institute is one of the most advanced medical research facilities in the world.

"If we use the resources of the NHS well, Britain would be the best place in the world to carry out these projects”

Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford and author of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy

But keep shaking those tins

Every month, 11.2m people donate to a medical research charity. Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer charity; In 2016/17, it spent £432m on research institutes, hospitals and universities. With no Government funding, it depends on fundraising from the public. (However, we have to double our efforts to match the USA, where charitable funding is, per capita, twice as much than in the UK.)

Yes, we can(nabis)
British-based (but NASDAQ-quoted) GW Pharmaceuticals is the developer of Epidiolex, the drug used to treat childhood epilepsy. It has just been approved for sale in the US, giving it a head start in a potentially huge market. “We’re the world leaders in cannabinoid science and I think we expect to stay there for quite some time,” CEO Justin Gover told the FT. The UK is the largest exporter of medicinal cannabis in the world but under current legislation it is illegal in Britain for cannabis to be supplied to ease the symptoms of chronic illnesses. This is now subject to a review.

The whay-eyes have it
Human corneas have been 3D printed for the first time by scientists at Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine. Researchers mixed stem cells from a healthy donor cornea with alginate, a gel derived from seaweed, and collagen to producing a printable ‘bio-ink.’ Watch the video, and don’t blink!


Proposed by Sir John Bell in last year’s Life Sciences Industrial Strategy paper, the Health Advanced Research Programme (HARP) draws inspiration from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and would act bridge gaps between government and industry funding. The digitisation of everything from patient records, X-rays, pathology, images, genomics, healthcare management tools, and the input from monitoring devices will fundamentally change the way we think about human disease and how best to manage it. So the idea for HARP is to “undertake large research infrastructure projects and high-risk ‘moon-shot’ programmes that will help create entirely new industries in healthcare.” Sir John’s report is essential reading.

The chances are, the UK will execute this pretty well. After all, life sciences is a sector where our research productivity is twice as great as that in the US and almost three times greater than in Germany.


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