Can UK scientists still lead the world after Brexit?
The life sciences sector makes £70bn a year for the economy. But the industry relies on international talent, funding and markets so there are widespread concerns over the impact of leaving the EU. FT science editor Clive Cookson meets the scientists tackling some of the biggest challenges facing the world
Written, produced and directed by James Sandy; filmed by James Sandy and Petros Gioumpasis; edited by James Sandy and Richard Topping; motion graphics by Victor Diaconescu
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British bioscientists are tackling some of the biggest challenges facing the planet. How to make clean energy, how to develop the next generation of medicines, and how to prevent disease. But some on the front line are worried about the future of their research, especially after Brexit.
I think it's no secret that universities are really not in favour of Brexit.
As a company now, over half of all of our team are from outside of the UK.
If the funding becomes UK national only, that will restrict our ability to expand our work.
The main problem, at least, for my work, is regulations. We don't know what's going to happen.
I'm going to examine the health of an industry that generates £70bn a year for the UK economy and employs almost a quarter of a million people across the country. But first... that's interesting. Red. I suppose it's all the cheese in it. This is personalised shopping with a difference. I'm a sucker for both of those. Yes, I can go with the chickpeas.
I may be shopping in a London supermarket. But I'm also trying out the latest high-tech weapon in the fight against the big killer diseases in modern society. The device I'm using is synced with an app on my phone, which is matched to my DNA. It can tell me if I'm at risk of obesity, hypertension, or even Type 2 diabetes. And more than that it can tell me which foods are likely to increase these risks and nudge me towards healthier alternatives in real time.
Its inventor, Chris Toumazou, is onhand to explain why the app is happy for me to buy some foods but not others.
The other one I picked out of the bars was this Snickers. And that's green. Okay, Mars out, Snickers in.
And let's see why. Mars bar--
Mars has got 60 grammes of sugar.
Choo! That was bounding. Whereas Snickers...
So nearly 15 grammes more sugar. So, in fact, you were quite low with things like your obesity gene. Things like fats, you were quite low with. So effectively, you are being nudged towards things that are a lot more appropriate for your heart.
Putting personal health in the hands of shoppers could help prevent chronic diseases that cost the NHS billions. But so far, few products like DnaNudge have made it out of UK labs and onto the market.
After the United States, Britain produces more cited life sciences research than anywhere else in the world. But in 2017, the UK ranked 12th out of 18 comparable countries in the value of its medical technology exports.
Science and innovation clusters across the country are trying to change that. Imperial College's White City campus is the latest example. It covers 23 acres of west London and cost £2bn.
We face huge problems in society at the moment. Huge global challenges. And the idea of this campus is to bring different people together. Bringing together different cultures obviously brings together a diversity of thinking. And it's only with that international linking and collaboration that we'll solve these problems.
With that in mind, how do you view the prospect of Brexit?
I think it's no secret that universities are really not in favour of Brexit. We're really worried that the students will no longer come from Europe because they bring a fantastic intellectual dimension. You know, without these brilliant young students from Europe, I think we'll be a lesser place.
The ultimate goal is to get researchers and businesses working on the next generation of products together. This lab and office space for start-ups. Sixfold Bioscience is just one of 70 companies already on campus.
So, we are a biotechnology company developing novel drug delivery systems for cell gene therapeutics. And what you can see here today is our R and D team.
Sixfold is working on new ways to deliver therapies that will fight diseases like cancer, by fixing faulty genes or reprogramming living cells.
So if we add more of this protein to these cells, we can increase the efficacy of our drug delivery.
The scientists on their team get to use cutting edge equipment at Imperial's NMR lab and measurement suite. But more than that, the cluster gives Sixfold's founders the opportunity to rub shoulders with entrepreneurs, funders, and potential collaborators.
For you personally, as founders of a biotech company, what does the opportunity to interact with all these people, what does it give you?
Just having a great space to do science, to execute on the science, then to discuss that with your peers. They want to come and meet us. We want to meet them. And I think it's really a good place to do that.
What we are also allowed to do is actually share our experience with people that are even earlier during the entrepreneurial journey. To share our struggles and hopefully allow other companies to progress even faster and have a smoother journey.
It goes further than just having companies. There's a lot of academics and there's a lot of larger pharma companies that are also in the area. That makes it a unique environment, I would say, within London.
And, of course, it's a very international space for an international company, as you are. Do you see any threats to that internationalism?
As a company now, over half of all of our team are from outside of the UK. We also work a lot with people in the US, with other areas of academic excellence. And maybe the government could be forced into a position to making it easier for those people to come to work here. And that's something I think is maybe a potential avenue or opportunity for us.
The number of new start-ups across all industries in the UK fell by 12.8 per cent in 2018. And researchers blamed economic uncertainty caused by Brexit.
On average, London start-ups have fared better than those in other parts of the country. But even here, the government has been keen to help new life sciences businesses find their feet. That's because the field is so specialised.
It is immensely difficult, actually, to find the right research expertise, the right operational infrastructure, and the right types of patients to recruit into clinical studies.
MedCity was launched five years ago to help businesses find collaborators in industry, academia, and government. The project is co-funded by the mayor of London.
London is proud to host the largest investor base in Europe, and some of the best universities in the world. But of course there's a little bit, tiny, whiney economic and political uncertainty in the country at the moment. But I want to take this moment to say to all of you that I remain very, very confident. Come what may, London will continue to thrive as a great city in which to do business.
I think in a post-Brexit world that it's even more important that we focus on some of these sectors. And I remain fully confident of London's future and UK's future in life sciences. It's the innovation, the entrepreneurship, that has kept London going.
There is political uncertainty. But I think what we're seeing is that the interest of industry coming to London and the greater south-east is really borne out of the strength of the scientific excellence and talent there is. And that definitely is not changing.
UK-based biotech companies attracted £2.2bn of investment in 2018, almost twice what they managed in 2017. In the same year, foreign direct investment in UK life sciences more generally reached £1.1bn, the highest it's been in the past eight years. But there are warnings from some of Britain's top research institutions. The scientific excellence that's so attractive for investors could be under threat.
The Francis Crick Institute is Britain's biggest bioscience lab. It has 1,200 staff. And scientists here come from over 70 countries.
We couldn't really be closer to continental Europe than the Crick. What does that mean to you, personally?
I suppose personally, being a French citizen, I can jump in the Eurostar in 10 minutes, and I'm in the train two and a half hours, I'm in central Paris. So it allows us to really get people from France, but also close by Belgium, Netherlands now, and Germany.
Seventy per cent of my lab are non-British. But in general, I think the proportion in the whole institution is probably more than 50 per cent and with a high majority of EU citizenship from laboratory support technicians to group leaders.
What about international funding, particularly EU funding? What would happen if we were cut off from that?
In 2018, I think the institute altogether get 12m euros from the EU or its own framework. If the funding becomes UK national only, that will restrict our ability to expand our work.
The UK's annual share of EU research funding has fallen by almost a third, or 400m euros since 2015. And there's been an almost 40 per cent drop in British applications to one of Europe's biggest funding schemes, Horizon 2020.
Many researchers feel the prospect of Brexit is already having an impact on their work.
Ana, we don't know what's going to happen with Brexit.
But what are the effects that you're afraid of if it goes badly?
The main problem, at least for my work, is regulations. We don't know what's going to happen. But in the event of a hard Brexit, where there is no agreement between the rest of Europe and the UK, if I'm trying to run a multinational trial, for example, how can I do it if there is no agreement in that for sharing? How can I develop a medical device within the UK regulations if I don't know that Europe will accept the UK regulations and vice-versa?
Changes to regulation could be particularly problematic for fields like cell and gene therapy, where scientists use the patient's own cells to develop a living treatment just for them. To give an idea of how rigorous the process is, we filmed in Stevenage, some 30 miles north of London, at the manufacturing centre of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult.
The cells arrive at the centre by special courier and are signed off before they can be taken inside. Once logged, they're cross-checked before the package can even be opened. More paperwork before they can be transferred to cryostorage. They're signed out and checked again before being taken into the lab. Nothing gets in without being cleaned and prepped. Only now can the scientists get to work.
In real time, this whole sequence of events takes place over days or weeks. And it's only a small part of the process. The clinical trial phase, testing, and final delivery of cell and gene therapies are all governed by strict rules and regulations. To develop any new treatment is a huge undertaking.
There is no other ecosystem for developing this end to end anywhere else in the world that's really as far on as we are. And that's not just because we've addressed the manufacturing issues. It's because we've also simultaneously looked at how the regulatory system was reformed. The approval times have gone down from over a year to under 60 days to get into clinical trial. And we've seen several products already start in the NHS, and start to be used really early. And that's kind of unheard of. The UK already is a world leader in these therapies. And providing that we can keep reinforcing investment, it will continue to be a world leader in these therapies.
Cell and gene therapy is expected to become a £2bn industry in the UK by 2025, supplying a global market that could be worth almost £10bn by then. Right now, Europe is by far the biggest market for UK medicines. More than 40 per cent of our medicinal products go to EU countries. If Brexit limits our access to that market, it could leave the life sciences vulnerable. Yet, industry leaders are keen to see the opportunities in Brexit as well as the challenges.
The best and worst case scenarios for UK life science in the coming years, I think are more dependent on what happens globally than be seeing solely through the prism of Brexit. If the Chinese market opens up and Shanghai becomes a source of capital for UK businesses, that would be fantastic. If Nasdaq continues to have the experience in the next five years it's had in the last five, that would be fantastic.
Those, for me, are the global parameters into which the UK sector will succeed and fail. Brexit and the outcome of Brexit plays a small part within those global perspectives.
The life sciences sector relies on talent and funding from overseas. It depends on streamlined regulation and easy access to international markets. It is also at the heart of the UK economy. How it performs after Brexit could be a guide for other industries and even for the country as a whole.