In the UK, we have an enviable track record for leadership in experimental medicine (the investigation of disease processes and responses to developmental medicines in humans). However, while the UK has strengths, there are also challenges, and we know that more can be done to improve leadership in this area.
To identify and discuss solutions to these challenges, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and the British Pharmacological Society held a joint meeting to bring together academia, industry, funding bodies and clinical pharmacology trainees.
Experimental medicine is a key theme for the Medical Research Council (MRC), as highlighted by the Chief Executive, Sir John Savill. We heard how MRC is undertaking a range of activities to provide the right inputs, such as dedicated investment, capacity building, and fostering collaborations, in order to drive success in experimental medicine. Professor Andrew Hughes, who has held leadership positions at the University of Manchester and AstraZeneca, is well placed to discuss the relationship between academia and industry. He discussed the future of medicines development; showing how developments in precision medicine, patient-centricity and scientific understanding will drive changes in the relationship between the two sectors, and will require greater collaboration between the two.
Highly skilled personnel are fundamental to the UK’s strength in experimental medicine and therefore securing the training pipeline must be a priority. I gave, along with Professor David Webb (President-Elect, British Pharmacological Society and University of Edinburgh), an overview of key training schemes, namely the North-West England MRC Fellowship Scheme in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics and the Wellcome Trust Scottish Translational Medicines and Therapeutics Initiative. These schemes partner academic centres and industry, providing Fellows with a ‘without walls’ experience by giving them the skills needed to bridge NHS, academia, regulatory bodies and industry. Around a third of the Fellows plan to stay in clinical pharmacology, while the others are pursuing particular medical specialties, and all our Fellows will be able to apply clinical pharmacology and experimental medicine skills in their medical specialty.
These schemes are high quality but absolute numbers of personnel are low and, overall, there is a skills shortage that will restrict the UK’s ability to deliver on strong foundations. We identified that these skills shortages can be addressed by creating an enabling environment for clinicians to move off programme for research training and ensuring a clear trajectory to attract the best medical trainees into research. We must also give careful consideration to how the impacts of all training schemes are measured. There is a risk of focusing on short-term measures which do not capture the benefits of capacity building.
Further, we all recognised that research training is just one component of delivering experimental medicine. There is a need to grow aligned workforces, such as the clinical pharmacology and therapeutics medical speciality, which would increase capacity to deliver research in the NHS.
As Professor Hughes highlighted, medicines development will be based on an increasing understanding of disease, achieved by academia and industry working together in a pre-competitive environment. Translational Research Partnerships (TRPs) occupy a niche of collaboration between industry and academia in early clinical development. These partnerships provide access to national networks of academics and clinical resources, with the NIHR Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure acting as a single point of contract for industry partners. We were able to consider both the industry and academic views of TRPs thanks to Dr David Close (MedImmune) and Professor Ian Bruce (University of Manchester), which led to a good discussion of strengths and weaknesses. We agreed that TRPs have made a promising start but there is a need to raise awareness of them in industry and emphasise the unique selling points, such as access to a network (rather than individuals) of academic expertise.
The Society looks forward to working with ABPI to take forward these discussions.