The Government, academia, and industry leaders must work together to support and develop regional life science ecosystems to meet the double ambitions of making the UK a global science superpower and levelling up the country to provide opportunity for all.

A new report published last month by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), Birmingham Health Partners (BHP) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), shines a light on one region – the West Midlands.

The picture is one of huge potential for the West Midlands life sciences ecosystem, with an opportunity to be on par with the UK’s Golden Triangle of Cambridge, London and Oxford, and innovations clusters in the US.  However, a concerted effort is needed to tackle the region’s challenges if it is to realise its potential.

The authors point to existing areas of business innovation, global leadership and BHP’s unique ecosystem that enables the full spectrum of translational medicine, encompassing health data, an established local health system, academic excellence and an extensive clinical trials capability- including:

  • The West Midlands has an unrivalled breadth and depth of researchers in the field of women’s health.  Their work is putting Birmingham Women’s Hospital at the forefront of innovation in maternal and women’s health, allowing the development and testing of new therapies and interventions that are transforming the lives of women not only in Birmingham but across the world.
  • The University of Birmingham’s Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit (CRCTU) is a global leader in paediatric cancer and clinical trials, for example, working with pharma company Bayer, to deliver new research into treatments for a rare type of childhood cancer.
  • University Hospitals Birmingham is an NHS Global Digital Exemplar, working closely with Health Data Research UK and biomedical and health informatics researchers to improve care pathways, redesign service provision and develop and test new treatments.
  • The region is also developing the Birmingham Health Innovation Campus, to leverage the existing integrated BHP ecosystem and drive innovation, improved health outcomes and economic growth. For example the Precision Healthcare Technologies Accelerator (PHTA), part of the innovation campus, is a unique centre addressing translational medicine needs in devices, diagnostics and therapeutics.

The region punches above its weight despite research showing that level of R&D investment per head in the West Midlands lags behind other areas of the UK, with the average West Midlands resident only receiving £20 per head in government funding. Despite this disparity in funding from central government, the sector employs over 10,000 people, and is a significant driver of economic growth in the region. However, over a 10-year period, the West Midlands was the only English region which did not see a net increase in employment in the life sciences industry

The report sets out recommendations based on five core themes, each with opportunities and systematic barriers. If these recommendations are implemented in full, the region could play a significant role in delivering the government’s Life Sciences Vision of making UK a leading global hub for life sciences:

1: Attracting R&D investment: the West Midlands has shown itself capable of attracting business investment at a rate in line with, or above the UK average.[i] Often, these investments are designed to support tackling significant health challenges within the local population.

However, the West Midlands is the lowest ranked English region in terms of total government expenditure in R&D.[ii] The West Midlands also has the third lowest amount of capital expenditure per head of any English region.

Recommendation: As part of the government’s levelling up agenda and R&D places strategy, there should be a specific focus on increasing the amount of public R&D funding per head to regions across the UK, including the West Midlands. This should be accompanied by adoption of policies and incentives to attract significantly more private-sector R&D investment.

2: Health inequalities: 30 per cent of the West Midlands population is classed an ethnic minority, compared with 15 per cent nationally. Socioeconomic deprivation is higher than the national average, with life expectancy lower than the rest of the UK.[iii]. These factors create a compelling case to build on existing work to promote inclusion and to help underserved communities access clinical research and be at the forefront improving health outcomes and addressing health inequalities.

Recommendation: West Midlands partners must pilot community-based projects to support local healthcare systems in building relationships with underserved communities in the region, tackling cultural and health literacy issues.  Partners should initiate plans to promote the benefit of diverse communities taking part in clinical research.

3: Pandemic response: The region played an integral role in tackling the pandemic, including working with the World Health Organisation to set international approaches to testing through its world class expertise in virology and immunology. Ground-breaking COVID-19 studies from BHP partners and business, showcasing the power of collaboration, are now informing future preparedness and government policy as well as aiding the search for new therapeutics.

Recommendation: The West Midlands region should look to take forward the recommendations from the G7 Therapeutics and Vaccines Clinical Trials Charter and 100 Days Mission, working with system partners and the government to develop an action plan for the region to inform healthcare decision making and create infrastructure to respond to future crises.

4: Leadership: The West Midlands is home to some of the most pre-eminent leaders in science and academia across many areas, such as women’s health. To fully harness their value, the area needs a joined-up approach to leadership initiatives and promotion of its assets, such as the focus of BHP, to lead with a shared purpose.

Recommendation: Regional political leaders should work with the ABPI, BHP and the CBI to develop a compelling showcase for potential investors of the capabilities and life sciences assets in the region, demonstrating the health, social and economic value generated.

As part of this, there should be a conscious effort and ambition to develop a clear ecosystem identity for the West Midlands, to generate the same level of esteem as the life sciences ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

5: Collaboration: This is at the heart of life sciences, yet only around half of healthcare professionals in the West Midlands feel the life sciences industry works collaboratively with universities and NHS partners to bring forward new innovations.

Recommendation: Collaboration should be fostered through funding incentives. Regional funding mechanisms should include a condition of collaboration in assessing bids. Weight should be given to a bid’s desire and demonstrated ability to collaborate with other organisations. This is an opportunity to build on the investment in the Birmingham Health Innovation Campus and its Life Sciences Opportunity Zone status as its core function is to catalyse this type of collaboration.