It was with no surprise that I read Dame Sally Davies' comments on the dire threat posed by antibiotic resistance earlier this week. She highlighted, quite rightly, the scale of the problem of over-use and under-investment in the next generation of treatments. This is a subject dear to my heart. Every year at UCL I give a short course on the development of antibiotics and this year I started the course, not simply by highlighting the problems of resistance, but the challenge facing anyone investing in this high risk area. As we live longer and identify new diseases, the problems that are being highlighted by Dame Sally and others will only increase. There will be an increasing requirement for development of new treatments, for resistant microbes and for many other forms of illness - from Parkinson's disease to Haemophilia - which UCL, amongst other institutions, is leading the fight against.
But if we take the right approach to this major challenge, we could improve our economy along with the health of our nation we have all of the pieces we need at our disposal, but we need concerted action to get them to work together.
Firstly there is an absolute need for sustained investment in fundamental scientific research. This was highlighted last week by 53 eminent scientists in The Telegraph and it is well established that curiosity driven research will always lead, by accident or design, to new insights and understanding which, in time, provide the 'raw material' for drug development. Advances in our understanding of the molecular basis of disease will be essential if we are to develop the sophisticated medicines of the future.
But if we are to invest more in research we do need to secure an even better return to the UK. So it was somewhat disappointing that the Science and technology Select Committee report on the so-called Valley of Death report got such scant publicity. It is possible that the media were underwhelmed by the recommendations. As I mentioned at a meeting with the Chair of the committee last week, I'm not overly optimistic about a brave new world of joined up government - which was one of the key recommendations.
To my mind, we need to be much more realistic about the amounts of capital required to get medical innovations through the so-called 'Valley of Death' - the chasm between research breakthroughs in the lab and a pill in a blister pack being handed to patient. The Select Committee did acknowledge that Government funding is often woefully inadequate, with smaller companies being forced to seek funding from the private sector, often overseas, which leads to them being bought up and the potential for new jobs and wealth for the UK evaporating again and again.
So we must take best advantage of the world-leading research done at British universities, especially in the life sciences, by investing properly in development. There are agencies already committed to this, but the scale of investment is simply too little. More public money well spent in collaboration with professionals in biotech and pharmaceuticals could deliver exciting healthcare benefits and a huge boost to our economic prosperity.
But helpful as taxpayer funding for increased research and early phase development might be, they are overshadowed by the risky nature of drug discovery and development. We know that it's hard to justify investment in development of specialised drugs for antibiotic resistance as the returns are so small. This is because - thankfully - there are relatively small numbers of people that cannot be treated with existing medicines. But it does make the investment proposition difficult to make. As we move to the goal of personalized medicine this will become an increasing problem for the development of new drugs.
So, if we are to continue with a market driven approach to developing drugs, we need to develop a more sophisticated way of ensuring an attractive return for investors in pharmaceutical companies. The days of the blockbuster drug are over, and yet development costs are escalating. We must therefore either accept higher prices for drugs or re-evaluate our approach to patent protection. A longer patent lifetime would allow investors to generate a return over a longer period and incentivise pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics. Perhaps even more importantly it would provide a business model that could safeguard the pipeline of new affordable medicines for many other diseases.
The average life expectancy is increasing dramatically, by 2026 we expect that 500,000 people will reach 100 - this is a tribute to drug developers around the world. But the development of new therapeutics is only one of the challenges that we face, and at the heart of many of these issues is financial sustainability. So we need to take action now on a health and wealth agenda and this has been recognize by Dame Sally, and the creation of the National Institute for Health Research has been an important step forward.
We need to scale up our ambition. The Government must do all it can to attract and retain the large pharmaceutical companies - names like GSK, Novartis and Merck Serono, huge players which employ tens of thousands in the UK already - to these shores to work with our world leading biomedical research community to develop new products and provide an expanding number of high quality jobs for the future. We must maximise the impact of scientific research from our universities for the good of people not just in the UK, but the world over. The war on disease, which increasingly we are winning, has been too hard a fight to see all our gains rolled back.