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Funding research for health, wealth and happiness

Vince Cable

Vince Cable

This week as part of our Centenary celebrations we awarded the MRC Millennium Medal to two scientists whose pioneering research has led to entirely new drugs for patients, as well as brought economic revenue to the UK. Here Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Dr Vince Cable reflects on the importance of long-term funding of research for people’s health and quality of life, and the UK’s life sciences sector.

Yesterday I had the honour of hosting the MRC Millennium Medal Ceremony, at which the organisation recognised the innovative contributions of Sir Phillip Cohen and Sir Greg Winter to their respective fields of protein phosphorylation and humanised antibodies.

Both Sir Philip and Sir Greg began their careers as laboratory-based scientists carrying out fundamental research, only to discover unheralded therapeutic possibilities in the course of their work. In the mid-1970s, no-one could have anticipated the clinical potential of protein phosphorylation, a process now targeted by 24 licensed drugs, with global sales of £18 billion in 2011. Meanwhile, antibody therapies are now used widely for diseases such as breast cancer (including the drug Herceptin) and autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

Both these significant stories have been made possible by the UK’s support for the most promising fundamental research, channelled through the MRC and other research funders. It delivers the discoveries that lead to clinical advances, offering patients better treatment options, reducing premature death and increasing quality of life.

But it can also have entirely unexpected applications — Southern Blotting, developed by a previous Millennium Medal recipient Sir Ed Southern led to the invention by Sir Alec Jeffreys (an MRC-funded scientist at Leicester University) of DNA fingerprinting, improving detection and conviction rates for criminals.

Return on investment

The UK is a world-leader in this field. Our strong science infrastructure supports a pharmaceutical industry employing 165,000 people with an annual turnover of £5 billion. Translating this into economic terms, a 2008 study found that each pound spent on heart disease and mental health research produces benefits equivalent to earning 39 and 37 pence respectively each year for the foreseeable future. The advances in healthcare delivered by science funding will lead to a happier, healthier population in years to come, lessening the burden on the NHS and meaning that people are able to remain active for longer.

It also has economic effects across the country in terms of jobs and investment. I want to see more of this in future years, which is why we are working with industry to deliver our life sciences strategy. Designed to maintain the UK at the forefront of medical innovation, it will create the right environment for the sector to grow.

Investment in large projects such as UK Biobank has attracted investment from global companies. Increasingly, private and third-sector funding is being leveraged directly through MRC grants. For example, between 2006 and 2011, £2.5 billion of MRC spending attracted a further £1.4 billion commitment from charitable organisations.

Public-private collaborations are delivering new opportunities in research and the development of new treatments. In Dundee, for example, Philip established the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, a collaboration between the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit, the University of Dundee and six major pharmaceutical companies, which has had a total investment of £50 million since 1998 and supports the development of numerous drug candidates.

There are many people alive today who can attribute their health and wellbeing to the discoveries of Sir Philip and Sir Greg, and to the MRC for seeing the potential of these two exceptional scientists and their revolutionary ideas. Let’s hope that over the next one hundred years countless more scientists make discoveries that prove just as significant — and beneficial.

Dr Vince Cable

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