- Jeremy Hunt has identified the UK’s prowess in life sciences as one of the keys to growth
- Hunt is right, but the chancellor must learn from the past
- The desire to promote life sciences dates back at least to the 1970s
Jeremy Hunt has identified the UK’s prowess in life sciences as one of the keys to growth.
He is right. The industry generates more than £94 billion for the economy and employs around 280,000 people. But the chancellor must learn lessons from the past. By chance, I came across the story of an innovative drug that started here, but through a series of sales ended up being developed by foreign companies.
The desire to promote the life sciences dates back at least to the 1970s. Politicians were also eager to commercialize the scientific advances of our universities.
In the 1990s, a wave of young scientists became biotechnology entrepreneurs. Among them, a coterie who founded a company called Chiroscience.
Initially it was backed by £3 million of British venture capital and floated on the stock exchange in 1994. It was one of the first deals made by Dame Kate Bingham, who later became known as chair of the government Covid vaccine task force.
Growth potential: The life sciences sector generates more than £94 billion for the economy and employs around 280,000 people.
The float was one of the first under what were then new stock market rules allowing riskier, high-growth companies to go public.
In other words, a textbook case for supporting a promising growth business.
One of the brilliant ideas conceived by Chiroscience turned into what is now an osteoporosis drug called Evenity. The brainwave was sparked when scientists discovered a gene in a small Afrikaner community in South Africa with a high incidence of a rare disease that causes excessive bone growth.
This was due to a genetic quirk that blocked the production of a hormone called sclerostin that prevents excessive bone growth. The Eureka moment at Chiroscience was that if a treatment could temporarily deactivate sclerostin, it could help people suffering from the opposite problem, osteoporosis, a disease that thins bones.
The result is a new monoclonal antibody treatment administered as monthly injections to patients (myself included).
Evenity was developed and marketed by the Belgian pharmaceutical company UCB and the American Amgen. The way this happened is a classic example of the British disease of selling off our most promising assets.
Chiroscience was sold in 1994 to another British company called Celltech. The latter was established by the government in 1980 to address concerns that the UK was not taking advantage of the potential of biotechnology.
Celltech obtained the rights to all new discoveries in the field from UK universities and the company was listed on the stock exchange, where it was included in the FTSE 100.
In 2004, seeking funds to develop drugs, including Evenity, Celltech was bought by UCB. The Belgian company is not a predatory asset stripper and indeed appears to have been a good manager of Celltech, once the great hope of British biotechnology. UCB employs around 1,100 people – around 10 per cent of its global staff – in the UK, where one of its research centers is located.
It has committed to investing more than £1 billion over five years in a new campus in Surrey for R&D, early development and commercialization of medicines.
Sales of Evenity, which was approved in the UK in 2022, have been growing rapidly. European sales in 2022 were €25m (£21.4m), up from €10m (£8.5m) the previous year.
In the autumn, its partner Amgen said its sales of Evenity had increased by more than 50 per cent to a record $307m (£242m) in the third quarter of 2023.
It’s great that UCB is investing here. But it’s a shame that we don’t have any exciting biotech pioneers in the FTSE 100 either. If we are to make the most of our life sciences strengths, it is imperative that we find a cure to our national disease that is “liquidation”.