Northern Ireland has a strong and internationally recognised life and health sciences sector which has become one of the fastest growing areas of the local economy and boasts a host of globally renowned leaders among its members.
The sector comprises dynamic, private sector companies in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, life and health science, medical devices and technologies, and digital health with strong exports to Europe and beyond, combined with global expertise in clinical and health research led by universities and hospitals here.
These areas are inextricably linked to the public health system and brought together in interconnected, place-based clusters that stretch across Northern Ireland from Londonderry’s Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre C-TRIC where the Northern Ireland Centre for Stratified Medicine is also based to Belfast’s Connected Health Innovation Centre CHIC at Ulster University.
These facilities are leading transformational research which aligns care needs with technology providers, researchers and clinical experience.
The latest to join these specialised clusters is the new £10m Centre of Precision Medicine based at the Centre of Cancer Research and Cell Biology CCRCB at Queen’s University, Belfast. The facility, spearheaded by Invest NI and Queen’s University, will develop an internationally accredited laboratory focusing on diagnostics which can be used to predict a cancer patients’ response to treatment. This will allow potentially costly drugs to be used more effectively by being prescribed only to those that can benefit from them.
The new Centre will provide access to R&D facilities for both local and international companies. It has the potential to develop ground breaking treatments for cancer patients and will further enhance the personalised medicine and oncology research sector in Northern Ireland.
“Life and health science is an area where there are opportunities for companies to develop, export and grow’, says Grainne McVeigh, Invest NI’s Director of Life Sciences.
It is about extending life and giving better diagnoses – it is about getting drugs to work better, faster and smarter. Our diagnostic and pharma companies are focused on getting the science right to help the patient. They are trying to make it easier for the clinician to diagnose what is wrong with a patient, thereby making treatment easier and recovery faster.- Grainne McVeigh, Director of Life Sciences, Invest NI
“It is an area of research strength in our universities. People recognise the importance of precision medicine. We have world class research, world class opportunities and some world class companies and Invest NI together with Queen’s wanted to underpin that by establishing the new centre which will contribute to the continued international recognition of Northern Ireland based research in precision medicine.’
According to Invest NI, a total of 170 companies operate in the life and health sciences sector in Northern Ireland(including those involved in health data analytics and systems). They have a combined turnover of almost £1bn, employ 8,500 people and account for 13% of exports from the region. In the last 5 years, the agency has offered support to firms across more than 280 areas of assistance including R&D, marketing, training and funding.
Grainne McVeigh says Invest NI is very supportive of companies in the sector because it is R&D intensive, export focused, innovative and growing.
“Any science based company is looking at the next innovation? What is the next big thing? What is the next drug or diagnostic test?
“A lot of the companies we work with are involved in developing drugs or products or methodologies to help patient outcomes – it is about extending life and giving better diagnoses – it is about getting drugs to work better, faster and smarter.
“Our diagnostic and pharma companies are focused on getting the science right to help the patient. They are trying to make it easier for the clinician to diagnose what is wrong with a patient, thereby making treatment easier and recovery faster.’
However, maximising the potential of Northern Ireland’s health innovations and scientific research and development, requires the public sector and more precisely the NHS.
“If healthcare can’t absorb a new drug or health product into clinical practices then it becomes very difficult,’ says Grainne.
“You will have companies innovating who have, for example, developed a new diagnostic test or pathway that will give patients a better response to treatment of a medical condition but if our health service is not able to adopt that and create awareness and pay for it – then a company may well have to sell it overseas. There are two halves to the innovation question – there is the innovation that companies do together with research and funding and then there is the issue of how to get it adopted by the NHS. There is a continuing need to support joined-up thinking across academia, industry large and small and the NHS.’
Grainne points to the Life Sciences Industrial Review Strategy for the UK written by Professor Sir John Bell and published last year, which provides recommendations to government on the long term success of the life sciences sector.
It is all about having a joined up approach – that is where the future of healthcare and the life and health science sector lies- Grainne McVeigh, Director of Life Sciences, Invest NI
Ground breaking developments are taking place all the time. For instance, CCRCB at Queen’s University, Belfast has forged ahead in developing cancer treatments and pioneering advancements in patient care. One of these is a computer program which allows scientists to examine tissue from tumours very quickly and to a very high level of detail which means huge amounts of data about lots of different types of cancers can be gathered. The hope is that patterns can be identified in the data that could help identify groups of patients who might benefit from new treatment strategies which ultimately will lead to a better outcome for them.
“You can’t have companies, universities, clinicians, healthcare professionals and government all working in silos. Information exchange has to happen and collaboration needs to show results,’says Grainne.
“ A researcher in a university with a brilliant idea should be able to work with a company to develop a great product that can be used by a clinician to treat a patient effectively and therefore improve his/her health outcome. It is all about having a joined up approach – that is where the future of healthcare and the life and health science sector lies.’
This article appeared in Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Ambition Magazine.