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ABPI: UK leading Europe in early clinical research

The UK is leading the rest of Europe for early-stage clinical research into new medicines and vaccines, according to a new report by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

More than 600 commercial trials are currently ongoing in the NHS, with cancer research the strongest area of study in the UK. However, the UK is also a world-leader in research for heart disease, immunology and conditions affecting the nervous system.

However, later stage research – often where large numbers of patients begin benefitting from a new medical trial – sees the UK’s world-leading status drop compared to other European nations; sitting in third behind Germany and Spain, as well as fifth globally behind also the United States and Canada.

The first annual report into clinical trials from the ABPI provides a definitive view into the domestic research environment in the UK, and comparing it internationally.

The ABPI has called on all political parties to ensure that their policies support UK science and research, and help to maintain the UK’s position as a global leader in medicines and vaccines development moving into the future.

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ABPI’s report outlines some of the challenges facing the UK to remain globally competitive, despite the country’s scientific strengths. These include Brexit and competition from existing established countries like the USA, Germany and Japan, as well as rapidly emerging heavyweights like China – who are investing significantly in life sciences.

The US sector remains dominant, and given the speed of growth in the Asian medicines and vaccines development field, maintaining a strong UK sector will also be vital in supporting continued investment to European science collaborations.

The report makes seven recommendations that will help UK maintain and grow its position as a leading medicines R&D hub. In ABPI’s view, failure to convert the UK’s world-leading early research into late stage development will threaten inward investment into the UK and ultimately our world-leading position and the associated benefits.

In 2018/19, the annual economic benefit of clinical research in the UK was £2.7bn, supporting 47,000 jobs and bringing £28.6m in savings and £335m income to the NHS.

The report shows that the UK:

  • Over the past decade over a quarter (28 per cent) of all EU clinical trial applications came from the UK, with an average of 632 trials starting here every year since 2012.
  • In 2017, ranks 1st in Europe and 3rd globally for the number of early clinical trials (phase I*); ranks 2nd in the world and 1st in Europe for phase II clinical trials;
  • Falls to 5th place globally for phase III trials, behind Germany, Spain, USA, and Canada in 2017.
  • Cancer is the UK’s strongest area in numbers of trials, with an average of 201 trials starting per year since 2012, with 210 in 2017.
  • The UK performs strongly in immune, nervous and cardio-metabolic diseases clinical research, with 79, 61 and 83 clinical trials started in 2017, respectively.
  • The USA dominates global rankings, topping the list for phase I, II and III trials.

Whilst European countries continue to invest heavily in science and healthcare, nations like China and Brazil are emerging as new global hubs of medicines R&D.

The report makes seven recommendations, which the ABPI say are vital the ensuring the future success of UK medicines development:

  • Increase investment into clinical research, through funding of the NIHR and others.
  • Simplify the processes for setting up and running clinical trials
  • Build a workforce fit for the future by plugging skill-gaps and investing in training for the workforce of the future
  • Harness the UK’s data infrastructure for medicines R&D, supported by a suitably skilled workforce
  • Embed patient involvement in clinical research
  • Ensure continuing high standards for transparency which are consistent with other countries
  • Secure a future UK-EU relationship on medicines and research that ensures the UK’s clinical research environment remains stable during this period of Brexit uncertainty and that there is a strong future relationship with the EU with regulatory and research alignment.

The UK has a strong legacy in clinical research, built on consistent investment into science by the public and private sector. The pharmaceutical industry alone invests £4.3 billion a year into R&D.

As a member of the EU, the UK has benefitted from Europe-wide research projects like Horizon 2020. The report warns that continued uncertainty about the future UK-EU relationship undermines the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for clinical research.

Dr Sheuli Porkess, executive director of research, medical and innovation at the ABPI, said: “These new figures are good news for the UK, showing just how strong we are as a nation at research and development which leads to new medicines and vaccines, but there’s no room for complacency.

"The report also shows the importance of the UK globally and the pressing need to keep pace with other established and emerging research hubs in order to continue to attract commercial clinical research.”


Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, added: "The UK’s world-leading clinical research sector is a rare good news story, and the next government cannot let this position slip. Amid the heat of Brexit we must continue to invest in life sciences research.

"We also need to recognise the huge contribution NHS clinicians make in giving up their time for these studies. NHS organisations across the country should explore how clinicians can best be given the time and skills to engage in research."

Aisling Burnand MBE, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, also said: “The recommendation to embed meaningful patient involvement in clinical research is a welcome one and one the AMRC has been working closely with ABPI to implement.

"We look forward to continuing to work together, providing leadership in this area and helping to develop a system-wide approach to embedding patient involvement in clinical trials. Done right, it will help the UK retain and strengthen its position as a global hub for clinical trials.”


Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, president elect of the British Pharmacological Society, said: “The UK is an attractive place to invest in clinical trials because of the infrastructure provided by the NHS. It is also a global leader in experimental medicine and early phase research.

"The ABPI report emphasises that continued success is heavily dependent on investing in key skills such as clinical pharmacology; there are long-standing skills gaps that are widely recognised - for example by ABPI skills surveys and the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy - and need urgent action.

"The Society is proud to be working with ABPI and partners in the Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance to increase the number of clinical pharmacologists in the UK, to develop modern training pathways and to build the partnerships that ensure clinical pharmacology expertise is accessible across the sector.”


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