The life sciences sector is worth more than £70 billion to the UK economy.
The UK life sciences sector is evolving rapidly driven by new technology and disruptive models. That was the overarching message at the recent Babraham Investor Conference 2018 (BIC), an event which showcased life science scale-up ventures and innovative early-stage organisations.
As highlighted by new government research, the life sciences sector is thriving. It is worth more than £70 billion to the UK economy and provides jobs for almost 241,000 people. In 2017, the UK also received the highest level of life science foreign-investment projects in Europe.
However, it has the potential to grow and evolve even further which will transform people’s lives for the better. Here’s how:
Revolutionary precision medicine
“Artificial intelligence (AI) and its ability to process huge amounts of different data and identify patterns that humans can’t, is transforming precision medicine and improving prevention strategies for diseases,” says partner Charles Fletcher.
“For example, Congenica, which presented at the conference, has developed a genome analysis platform which interprets massive amounts of sequencing data and produces reports to support the diagnosis of rare genetic diseases. A whole genome contains 3 billion base pairs, but algorithms can analyse all of it in only 20 minutes.
“As well as improving the diagnosis of rare genetic diseases in the near term, this technology is also providing new insights for future screening and treatment of both rare and common disease.”
Improved mental healthcare
Partner Patrick Farrant says that mental healthcare is another area where AI and machine learning is having a positive impact.
“Data driven technology is playing a vital role as highlighted by the work of leso Digital Health, another company featured at BIC. Its online platform brings therapists and patients together and accumulates patient data based on these interactions. This data is analysed by AI, creating a picture of different illnesses and how best to treat them.”
Pharmaceutical industry disruption
AI is improving people’s health, enabling healthcare professionals to better understand people’s needs and provide more effective support and guidance. “Long term, it is also anticipated that machine learning will be able to predict whether a human will become ill or not,” says associate Natasha Bowyer Irvine.
“Not only could this reduce the need for people to see doctors but shift the pharmaceutical industry’s emphasis from treating people who are ill to keeping them healthy. This is a fundamental change which will offer opportunities for some healthcare businesses but put others at risk.”
Virtual business models
Associate Diviya Padman notes that the increasing use of contract research organisations (CROs) highlighted at BIC is fuelling virtual business models which are driving down costs in the sector.
“By outsourcing drug development to specialist CROs, biotechs need minimal employees and no lab space,” she says. “They also have access to external expertise and skills and can carry out risky projects without investing in significant resources.
“It’s a model that’s not without risk. CROs must be carefully chosen to ensure they are aligned with the biotech’s objectives. But the appetite for virtualisation is growing and that could see much greater efficiencies across the whole sector, which could maximise returns for investors.”
In basic terms, synthetic biology is about reworking DNA, sometimes even making it from scratch to build new life forms or produce substances that are difficult to obtain by other means including medicines.
Charles Fletcher says: “Synthetic biology isn’t new, but it was clear from the presentations at the conference that it is advancing rapidly in line with a surge in demand. This is opening up opportunities for companies associated with the concept especially those developing the enabling technology.
“For example, Cambridge-based Evonetix is developing a platform that has the potential to accurately synthesise DNA sequences at the scale required to facilitate synthetic biology.”
Advances in technology combined with innovative new ways of working and strong investment is painting an exciting picture of the UK life sciences sector.
AI and data-driven technology is progressing at a phenomenal rate, transforming all areas of healthcare and opening the door for new techniques and treatments. At the same time disruptive models are shifting the way the sector operates and how drugs are being developed.
“Each of these shifts bring risks, but biotechs remain seemingly unfazed by potential challenges and that’s good news not only for the sector but the people it serves,” concludes Patrick Farrant.
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