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Can we afford innovation in medicine?

Stephen Whitehead, CEO of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), on the fundamental need for medical investment and education in the UK
Stephen-Whitehead

The UK has long been at the forefront of medical innovation. Medical innovation is not based on eureka moments but consistent small steps forward. There is a profound need for research that will continue to gradually deepen our knowledge; providing new medicines and treatments that will be prescribed to patients day to day.

The small step-by-step improvements that have brought momentous health benefits to existing treatments are the foundation of UK innovation and excellence; for example, the transformation of the treatment of HIV. The rapid adoption and uptake of new classes of innovative therapies used in combination with existing treatments transformed HIV treatment, creating an adaptive treatment that has changed lives.

Innovation is crucial to the industry not only in the sense of medicine development but also public health policy. Later this year we will be entering into negotiations to determine the price of prescription medicines for the years to come: the funding of innovative medicines needs to be at the heart of these negotiations. At the moment the UK has one of the slowest uptakes in Europe of innovative new medicines;  this slow uptake also needs to be resolved particularly because of the long-term financial burden the NHS will incur with the UK's ageing population.

The pharmaceutical industry is a cornerstone of the UK economy; generating a trade surplus of £7 billion, this is greater than any other industrial sector. The pharmaceutical industry also employs around 67,000 people (25,000 of those in research and development). The Government recognises this, as David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, recently said: “The UK has significant areas of excellence, not least its science base and industry tells us that, yes, the NHS is world-renowned, but it could tempt a lot more investment if we made more of our greatest assets: our talent for discovery and our NHS.”

With the ever growing pressures of funding for R&D in the UK it is important to understand the key processes behind the development of medicines.  It costs over £1 billion and takes over 12 years to develop a medicine. These risks need to be rewarded to bring investment to the UK if the UK is to continue developments in for example, antibiotics, anti-epileptics, cancer and HIV treatments. However, the importance of iterative innovation must be recognised and there is a need for greater incentives for companies and the wider industry to maintain this pivotal research.

The importance of innovation for the health of UK is critical to patients, the NHS, and the pharmaceutical industry. Despite the expense, the UK can ill afford not to invest in the industry and keep the UK as a world leader in life sciences.

So, can we afford innovation in medicine? The simple answer is that we cannot afford not to innovate. This issue will be the focus of our annual conference this year on April, 26 in which the vast challenges facing innovation within the industry will be outlined, discussed, and articulated. 

The conference 'Can we afford innovation in medicine?' will feature a vast array of speakers, outlining the fundamental need for medical investment and education in the UK.

• For more information, please visit the ABPI Annual Conference website

Stephen Whitehead is CEO of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)

5th April 2012

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