The Impact of UK Collaboration in Life Sciences
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The following article is an opinion piece written by Jan Wauters. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
The Windsor Framework agreed upon in February has made people question, once again, what collaboration between the UK and EU should look like. It’s not yet clear whether the agreement means that the UK will rejoin the Horizon Europe Research Program. In terms of life sciences, why is collaboration so important? How will global populations be impacted by this?
Flanders – A true life sciences hub
More than 90% of UK COVID-19 vaccines were manufactured in Flanders, as a result of a collaboration that researchers on both sides of the English Channel should be proud of. I know that this statistic has surprised some people, so it is worth a short explanation.
Flanders’ dominance in life sciences has been building since the 1980s, when Belgium introduced major constitutional reforms which gave Flanders greater autonomy. The new Government of Flanders decided to focus on the areas where it was already strong and made strategic investments in those sectors. e.g., established imec, our strategic R&D center for nanoelectronics and nanotechnology, where I previously worked, and VIB, our strategic R&D center for biotechnology.
Despite the government changing many times in the 40 years since, the focus has been maintained. Every five years, VIB has its grant renewed and this ensures that the long-term IP needs of industry are met across targeted sectors. As a result, Flanders has built a reputation as a global leader in R&D for industry, particularly for life sciences and nanotechnology.
During the entirety of this period, Flanders has recognized the key role that collaboration plays in this.
The power of collaboration
When I was at school, I was taught not to look over the shoulder of my friend to see their work, as that was cheating. Today, I believe our children are taught the power of teamwork. As humans, we inspire each other to find new solutions we would not have thought of working in isolation. Without collaboration, research teams will waste time working to solve problems that others have already solved. They will struggle without the critical insight of others.
The timescales for the development of new medicines are long, with 14 years being the standard. This means that the sector has to face huge outlays with the possibility of no return and, even if successful, a time-limited return, as patents are only granted for 20 years. This is why the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, within months, was such an extraordinary achievement. It was a powerful example of collaboration propelling research to faster conclusions at a far lower cost.
The argument against collaboration is that you’re sharing valuable IP, and so devalue the potential commercial rewards of the work. However, I believe this has to be balanced against the associated reduction in risk. Without collaboration, you are at a far higher risk of being too late to market or arriving with an inferior product. With costs escalating, no one can afford to work in a silo, ignorant of what is going on elsewhere.
Instead of deciding whether to collaborate, the commercial question should therefore be what to collaborate on and what IP needs to be retained. What parts of the project can be shared to everyone’s advantage, and what parts should be retained for commercial reward. It’s not an easy thing to get right; I would suggest that one tries to define where shared IP is focused like, e.g., delivery or the targeting mechanism. One industry more advanced in this, that life sciences can learn from, is semi-conductors.
The cost, complexity and timescales of R&D in life sciences is exponentially increasing as we move from trying to treat the symptoms, to treating the underlying disease. The UK has been a pioneer in personalized medicines, that use a person's own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose or treat disease. These medicines will be expensive to deliver and come with other challenges, such as data protection issues. However, the NHS is set up in such a way that these can be managed. UK involvement could make all the difference in finding cures for numerous fatal conditions. Collaboration will save lives, as it did with COVID-19.
Since the Winsor Framework was signed in February, there has been a lot of discussion as to whether this means that the UK will re-join the Horizon Europe Research Program. The UK Government has not been clear on this point, so we have to wait and see. Horizon Europe is the EU’s key funding program for research and innovation and has a budget of €95.5 billion. It’s important because it is central in driving collaboration in applied research.
Many commentators appear to believe that Horizon Europe is for EU members only. This is not a true reflection of how Horizon operates. Horizon tackles global challenges and operates an open innovation model and there are three types of countries that are eligible for Horizon: EU Member States, third countries associated to Horizon Europe and other third countries.
The third countries associated to Horizon Europe include: Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. UK could easily be added to that list. There are conditions attached to participation from third countries, and the eligibility is defined in the work program. There are also some restrictions on the establishments in the country that can participate. However, it is unlikely that the criteria and the restrictions will pose a challenge to UK organizations.
As we learned so powerfully with COVID-19, our challenges in science are global, it is to the advantage of us all that we collaborate and share our knowledge. Disease doesn’t recognize borders. The EU already works productively with non-EU countries through Horizon Europe and also directly with the US’s National Institutes of Health. Collaboration with the UK would not break or even stretch any rules.
The UK, like Flanders, has a lot to offer the world in life sciences. Without full participation the advancement of our understanding and our ability to manage diseases will be held back. As we adapt to the new post-pandemic world, that advancement is key to successfully managing health threats to us all. We would be naive to believe that the pandemic is a one-off event.
About the author:
Jan Wauters is a science and technology counselor at Flanders Investment & Trade, an official body of the Government of Flanders with an office at the Belgian Embassy in London to help UK businesses access the EU.