EU / UK collaboration on life sciences: Why is it so important?
SummaryFlanders, the northern region of Belgium, has a long history of collaboration in life sciences, particularly with the UK. Most recently in the development of the Covid vaccine. It was in Flanders that more than 90% of all UK vaccines were made. It is currently unclear what the recent Windsor Agreement will mean for our collaboration on life sciences and whether the UK will re-join Horizon Europe Research Program but it is useful to review the impact of collaboration in life sciences.
- Author Company: Flanders Investment & Trade
- Author Name: Jan Wauters
- Author Website: Flanders Investment & Trade
Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, has a long history of collaboration in life sciences, particularly with the UK. Most recently in the development of the Covid vaccine. It was in Flanders that more than 90% of all UK vaccines were made. It is currently unclear what the recent Windsor Agreement will mean for our collaboration on life sciences and whether the UK will re-join Horizon Europe Research Program but it is useful to review the impact of collaboration in life sciences. What difference has it made, and will it make, to mankind?
First some background as to why Flanders is so strong in life sciences and an explanation of the dominance of the region when it came to the vaccine. In the 1980s, Belgium introduced major constitutional reforms which gave Flanders far greater autonomy and with it the ability to promote itself as an industrial, entrepreneurial, and technological powerhouse. At that time, Flanders chose to focus on its strengths and made major strategic investments in a number of key sectors e.g. Established, Imec, our strategic R&D centre for nanoelectronics and nanotechnology, where I previously worked, and VIB, our strategic R&D centre for biotechnology.
Over the last 40 years, this focus has made Flanders a global leader in R&D, and in the translation of that innovation into industry. One unique aspect of this is that, despite many changes of government in that time period, the focus has never changed. VIB has had its grant reviewed every five years, and each time the funding has been maintained.
That continued focus and support has delivered global dominance for Flanders in life sciences. Many now refer to the region as ‘a true life sciences hub’. Through its support of its strategic R&D centres such as Imec and VIB, the Government of Flanders ensures that the long-term IP needs of industry are met across many industries. Collaboration has always been a key part of that.
In life sciences there has been a shift from treating the symptoms, to treating the underlying disease. This has increased the complexity, timescales and therefore the cost of finding solutions. Typically, it takes 14 years to develop a medicine before it can be brought to market and then the patent only lasts for 20 years. That is a huge risk for researchers. With the Covid vaccine, collaboration and focus brought the timescale down to just a few months. If we can do that for Covid, think what collaboration on that scale could achieve in the fight against other diseases?
Human brains innovate best when we work as a team. However, the benefits of collaboration are even more tangible than that obvious reality. If we have to work in isolation, we will waste time trying to solve problems that have already been solved in other countries, or we will struggle without the critical insight that has already been achieved elsewhere. Collaboration therefore reduces timescales and shares the cost. This also reduces the commercial risk, which is why even the most bottom-line focused managers need to understand that collaboration is essential, even when the marketplace is highly competitive.
The next generation of drugs require a paradigm shift in our approach to their development. Life sciences can learn from other industries, such as semi-conductors, where the approach to pre-competitive collaboration is more mature. I do appreciate that it is not always straightforward to decide what can be worked on without jeopardizing competitive advantage and where collaboration will help advance everyone. I would suggest that in the development of medicine, that one tries to define where shared IP is focused e.g. delivery or the targeting mechanism.
The collaborative approach will be particularly useful in personalised medicine, which will be hugely expensive to deliver. Using a person's own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose, or treat disease is an area of life sciences where the UK is ahead. The nature of the setup of the NHS also means that complexities around the subject, such as data protection, is well advanced. Collaboration could mean a huge step forward in treating things like cancer.
One of the central considerations being discussed, since the Windsor Framework was agreed in February, was whether it would mean the UK re-joining Horizon Europe Research Program. This is EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of €95.5 billion. The programme facilitates collaboration in applied research and strengthens the impact of research and innovation in developing, supporting and implementing EU policies. It supports creating and better dispersing of knowledge and technologies, so is a central driver of collaboration in R&D across Europe.
Horizon tackles global challenges and is an open innovation model. Contrary to the impression many people seem to have of Horizon Europe Research Program it is not restricted to EU members. There are three type of countries that are eligible for Horizon: EU Member States, third countries associated and other third countries.
The third countries associated to Horizon Europe include: Albania, Georgia, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Turkey and Ukraine. I’m sure the UK would be warmly welcomed to that list. Conditions can be attached to participation from these countries, and the eligibility will be clearly defined in the work programme. There are also criteria on what establishment within the country are allowed to participate, but UK establishments, particularly those who were part of the Horizon programme prior to Brexit, would not struggle to meet the criteria.
The EU also works very productively with the US’s National Institute of Health.
As we learned so powerfully with Covid, our challenges in science are global, it is to the advantage of us all that we collaborate and share our knowledge. Disease doesn’t recognise borders. The UK is a powerhouse when it comes to Life Sciences, the world will benefit from its full participation. In Flanders we look forward to that happening to deliver the same extraordinary results as we saw with the vaccine.
In June Flanders Investment & Trade will be sponsoring Knowledge for Growth which takes place in Antwerp in Flanders. We believe it is one of the most important life science conferences in the world. We hope to see you there.