Can biotech lead an economic revolution?

Saturday 28 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 1-3Battle for the Economy


The ‘eight great technologies’ identified by the UK’s coalition government in 2012, as areas where the country could propel growth and become a world leader, included synthetic biology and regenerative medicine. Now, the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy commissioned by the present government recommends that the UK embark on ‘large research infrastructure projects and high-risk “moonshot programmes”, that will help create entirely new industries in healthcare’. The government has announced £160 million of new funding for life sciences, and hopes to leverage more than £250 million of additional funds from other sources. These funds will be invested in the development and manufacture of advanced therapies, medicines and vaccines.

Just as the advent of synthetic chemistry played a vital role in the British-led industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so it has been suggested that synthetic biology will become vital to a new industrial era. Meanwhile, biotechnology is converging with information technology – DNA sequencing and ‘omics’ more widely require the conversion of biological samples into large quantities of sensitive data, which is then analysed using algorithms.

The NHS is the first healthcare system in the world seeking to commission routine whole-genome sequencing for rare diseases and cancer, work which is currently being pioneered by the 100,000 Genomes Project. Conversely, data can now be stored in the form of DNA – as illustrated vividly this year, when American researchers used CRISPR genome editing to take one of the world’s earliest films (a 19th century motion study of a galloping horse) and encode it in the DNA of bacteria.

‘Disruption’ in biotechnology is often lauded, even as new possibilities in genomic and reproductive science pose ethical challenges. But disruption in a more economic sense – of the sort that necessarily involves low-productivity or low-profit businesses being allowed to fail and close – is still regarded with great trepidation, as policymakers and professional bodies tend to favour stability. Regulation is a key source of stability and confidence in the UK life sciences, but in recent times it has been formulated and promulgated very much in an EU context, and is therefore now rendered uncertain by Brexit.

The new Life Sciences Industrial Strategy claims that ‘in a country where productivity is a major challenge, public sector life sciences discovery activity… is dramatically more productive compared to other countries such as the USA or Germany’. What role will biotechnology play in the industries of tomorrow? Will it predominate as a durable, sizeable and job-creating sector, helping to turn around the UK’s flagging productivity, or does its value rest more in its place at the vanguard?

Does the picture change if we take account of adjunct and enabling technologies, and the design, manufacture and supply of relevant materials and equipment? Does the UK retain capacity for the latter, or has this capacity moved offshore? What is the scope for entirely new sectors, as yet unenvisioned, which could be born from progress in biotechnology?