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UK government unveils life sciences package

Data from millions of British patients could be made available to scientists in academia and in industry as the country’s government attempts to revitalise medical research. Opening up data is one of a package of life-sciences-friendly moves unveiled by the UK’s coalition government in the wake of critical reviews of the country’s attractiveness to medical research and the “wake up call” that was Pfizer closing its research site at Sandwich, in Kent.

The Department of Health today announced plans to change the ‘constitution’ of the country’s National Health Service (NHS) so that patient data is automatically opted in to clinical research. Medical research groups such as the Wellcome Trust have come out in favour of the proposals.

Critics though have already attacked the plans over concerns about patient confidentiality, as many fret over increasing commercialisation of the nation’s state-funded NHS.

Also contained in today’s package are a £180 million fund for translational research (£90 million of which is new money) and a consultation on ‘early access’ to speed take up of new drugs and technologies. This is against the background of a perception that the UK has become increasingly unattractive as a site of medical research (see: UK health research to be rehabilitated).

David Willetts, the science minister, said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: “Pfizer was a wake up call to us.” But he added that the site was rising again as a site for research innovation. Around 500 ex-Pfizer scientists would remain at the Sandwich site.

But it is allowing commercial companies to access patient data that looks likely to prove highly controversial.

In a statement, Sarah Chan, of the University of Manchester’s Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, noted that concerns over privacy and confidentiality were “perhaps overblown”, but that the potential use of the this data by commercial researchers was concerning.

“There are many ways in which research based on collected health data could be of great benefit to the public, such as bringing new medicines to the clinic more quickly and helping us to understand the basic biology of human disease, but when science is driven by private interests and motivated by private gain, we have no assurance that it will produce the benefits that should lead us, the public, to support it,” said Chan, in a statement distributed by the Science Media Centre.

The opposition Labour party said life sciences were hugely important to the UK but that the government appeared to be proposing putting “large chunks of our NHS up for sale”.

Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, said in a statement, “What he [Cameron] calls red tape others might see as essential safeguards. Some areas need proper regulation and patient records is certainly one of them.”


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    Glenn Masson said:

    This is great news – I fail to see how the downside a breach of patient confidentiality could possibly outweigh the potential benefits. Data access and security is far more apparent and rigorous than it once was. Although a “laptop left on train” scenario isn’t impossible to imagine.

    Although the Pfizer plant closing in Sandwich was symptomatic of the Pharmaceutical Sector as a whole (i.e. reducing R&D costs via relocalisation to developing countries due to the impending patent cliff), David Willets is taking steps in the correct direction to address this. Whether these sorts of actions will persuade other Big Pharma to remain in the country is debatable.

    The UK has an enviable position on the world stage of the biological sciences – hopefully this can be maintained.

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