“Major breakthrough” touted for strategic funding in genomics research

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Global genomics

A new fund to boost life science innovation was revealed by Sir Jon Symonds at the Global Genomics Conference, as the current Chairman of GSK hinted at a raft of upcoming major policy proposals for life sciences and genomics.

According to Symonds, the creation of a “Life Sciences Growth Fund” would harness a vast pool of UK institutional capital, with a long-term focus on scaling up the UK’s burgeoning life science sector. The proposal is currently with the Prime Minister and enjoys the support of the various government departments involved.

Symonds also alluded to the upcoming establishment of a Life Science Implementation Board, accountable to the Life Science Council, which would be led by two Secretaries of State, to produce system alignment on the allocation of resources.

Also hinted at was a potentially upcoming “major breakthrough” with funding agencies, whereby resources will be strategically allocated, as opposed to the aggregated, bottom-up funding models that currently exist.

The policies were revealed at on 25th May during a panel discussion at the Public Policy Projects’ (PPP) Global Genomics Conference 2022. The session, chaired by former Genomics England Chair Sir John Chisholm, who co-authored the government’s Life Sciences. The event discussed the role of genomics in fulfilling the brief of the government’s Life Sciences Vision – to make the UK a ‘life science superpower’.

“The harmony between PPP’s report and the Life Sciences Vision could not be closer.” Sir Jon Symonds, Chair, GSK

Genomics Revolution
PPP’s Genomics Revolution report

The Global Genomics Conference 2022 followed the publishing of the Genomics Revolution report by PPP, which was chaired by Sir John Chilsholm and Sir Mark Caulfield, former Chief Scientist at Genomics England.

Commenting on PPP’s Genomics Revolution report, Sir Jon Symonds said: “The harmony between PPP’s report and the Life Sciences Vision could not be closer.”

Also on the panel were Professor Dame Sue Hill OBE, Senior Responsible Officer for Genomics at NHS England, Dr David Atkins, Board member at the UK Bioindustry Association and Thorben Seeger, Chief Business Developer at Lifebit.

Sir John Chisholm, Panel Chair and former Chair, Genomics England
Sir John Chisholm, Panel Chair and former Chair, Genomics England

“We can use the NHS as not only a deliverer [of genomic therapy], but also a provider of the key resource – which is the data.” Sir John Chisholm, Panel Chair and former Chair, Genomics England

Turning the Life Sciences Vision into reality

Symonds reaffirmed the breadth of the Life Sciences Vision, stressing that it can deliver “the most advanced and integrated genomic research healthcare ecosystem in the world”, with the NHS at its centre.

“We have to have the big funding agencies aligned with this vision.” Sir Jon Symonds, Chair, GSK

Following the success of the UK’s scientific response to the pandemic, the Life Sciences Vision was published by the government in 2021. Acting as a roadmap for the UK life sciences sector, it seeks to recreate the mission-driven collaboration inspired by the pandemic. But central to institutionalising these successes, according to Sir Jon, is squaring the disconnect between the “bottom-up allocation of resources and the top-down vision.”

Sir Jon Symonds, GSK

“We have to have the big funding agencies aligned with this vision,” Sir Jon explained. “Top-down resource allocation is not the same as allocating resource in a myriad of individual grant-derived allocations.”

The central theme of these policies is collaboration, and a unity of purpose. There is no doubt that the pandemic showcased what is possible through the collaborative efforts of the UK’s scientific infrastructure; at one point during the pandemic, the UK was sequencing over 80,000 sequences per week, and contributed greatly to the global efforts to understand, track and treat the disease.

Partnerships and collaboration

The importance of broad collaboration and systemic alignment was echoed by Professor Dame Sue Hill, who stressed the referred to the aligning routine care with genomic research and development as a key moment for the UK. This began under the 100,000 Genome Project, Genomics England’s ambitious project to sequence 100,000 genomes from NHS patients affected by rare disease or cancer.

Dame Sue explained how recruiting participants from routine care, “showed us how we could collect real world evidence as part of ongoing routine care… that could be fed back into the NHS for patient care and benefit.”

“We can use people within the NHS workforce in an entrepreneurial way.” Professor Dame Sue Hill, Senior Responsible Officer for Genomics, NHS England 

“Adopting whole genome sequencing for routine care allowed us to ensure that genomics supported pre-emptive healthcare and enabled us to make more precise diagnoses. It also led to better alignment with precision medicine and with the commercial medicines pipeline, so we could look two years ahead and be assured that we align our genomic medicine service with the requirements of those therapeutics.”

Professor Dame Sue Hill OBE, NHS England

Dame Sue also lauded NHS efforts to enable innovation within genomics through its Clinical Entrepreneurs scheme. To date, Dame Sue explained, “706 clinical entrepreneurs in the NHS have been supported. They have delivered 596 innovations, 131 partnerships, nearly 100 million users of those products, and £390 million of funding secured. This shows us how we can use people within the NHS workforce in an entrepreneurial way as well as supporting them through the research collaborative and access to the infrastructures that are created.”

“The extent to which we can leverage those flagship projects is critical.” Dr David Atkins, SME representative, UK Bioindustry Association

The UK’s efforts to harmonise disparate data sources and different sectors were also cental in Lifebit’s decision to remain in the UK despite receiving significant investment from the US. According to Thorben Seeger, “this is where the opportunity lies for the UK to be a life science superpower – leading the world into the era of connected data. There is such big value in combining it; genomics data needs clinical data for context to really yield outcomes.”

Dr David Atkins, UK Bioindustry Association

Also speaking on the panel was Dr David Atkins, SME representative on the UK Bioindustry Association board. Echoing the power of partnerships across sectors, Dr Atkins praised the fact that UK businesses can access flagship projects, such as the 100,000 Genomes Project, more easily than their counterparts overseas. “The extent to which we can leverage those flagship projects is critical,” he explained. “It gives enormous validation and overseas investors are attracted by this.” It is this type of public-private collaboration and the investment it drives, he argued, that will allow the UK’s life science sector to truly scale up and realise its global potential.

The end goal: improved outcomes

The panel agreed that through the right policies and the harnessing the spirit of collaboration across sectors that occurred during the pandemic, the UK is well positioned to secure its place as a life science superpower. Through the strategic allocation of resources, the incentivisation of partnerships and a willingness to fail, the UK can build upon its successes and realise the potential of the Life Sciences Vision.

It should also be remembered that the title of ‘life science superpower’ is not an empty one; getting this right could bring substantial benefits to population health, both in the UK and abroad. Sir Jon reminded the audience the scale of what it is at stake: “The prize – if we get there – is early detection, it is prevention and it is a substantially lower cost of delivering improved health outcomes.”

To find about more about Public Policy Projects’ work on genomics, please click here