Catapult reports on the state of UK drug discovery in 2019

Published: 20-May-2019

Medicines Discovery Catapult and the BioIndustry Association report covers SMEs, the service & supply sector, and trends impacting the industry fluctuations

Medicines Discovery Catapult and the BioIndustry Association have unveiled their 2019 State of the Discovery Nation report, providing new insights into the UK’s growing medicines discovery industry.

The report reveals a thriving service and supply sector for the UK in addition to its R&D biotechs. It also highlights two breakthrough technologies set to influence the future of medicines discovery and maintain the UK’s global competitiveness in upcoming years.

Service and supply

With SMEs at the heart of the operation, UK medicines discovery is a large, diverse, vibrant and growing sector. This core biopharma sector alone increased turnover by £3.3 billion and created 47 new businesses between 2016 and 2017.

The 1,200 Service and supply companies account for 80% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in UK medicines discovery, and 90% of employment. This equates to over 1,200 companies. The other 20% is seemingly focused on therapeutic product development.

Of the 20% focussed on discovering potential new medicines; 70% are working in the areas of cancer, anti-infectives and the central nervous system

Most SMEs have less than 20 people working for them, but despite their size, SMEs are a critical source of innovation for new medicines. However, as far as long-term business plans go, small companies prefer to sell their asset, while large companies prefer embarking on partnerships. This means that technology inspired in a small company, often ends up filling the shelves of one of the pharma giants.

Steve Bates OBE, CEO of BioIndustry, said: “Many virtual and small biotechs, as well as established global pharma players, rely on the expertise and capability of UK service providers. As such the economic benefit in jobs and growth in UK life science, especially outside the South East of England, is often delivered via sub-contracting and the provision of services. It’s vitally important policymakers understand this network and supply chain as we work together to deliver the UK life science industrial strategy.”

The importance of companies working within the service and supply sector should not be underestimated, they are key to maintaining the UK’s global competitiveness in a sector that’s critical for UK plc. In 2015, the life sciences industry contributed £30.4 billion in UK GDP, supported 482,000 jobs and contributed £8.6 billion in taxes.

The life science industry in the UK is huge, and the service and supply sector contributed £8.7bn in taxes in 2015. This major part of the industry should not be overlooked. This includes CROs, advisory services, consultants as well as organisations that provide to access to state-of-the-art technologies and laboratory capabilities.

They enable the sector to deliver discovery projects that are more predictive and improve R&D productivity, thereby attracting industry investment into R&D in the UK. Improved productivity is integral to the UK’s Industrial Strategy which aims to build a Britain fit for the future and raise total R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.


Trends that seem to be omnipresent within medicine discovery are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Complex Cell Models (CCMs).

The medicines discovery community view AI as not only one of the current ‘hot areas’, but integral to improving medicines discovery decision making and productivity, with 90% expressing a need for the technology.

75% of current AI spend is on data access, curation and data labelling, and though budgets are growing, the industry is calling for benchmarks and comparisons between AI systems.

Also on the UK’s radar is Complex Cell Models. These are biological models and cell culture systems that more closely mimic human tissue architecture, microenvironment, and signalling. Current capabilities include the use of miniaturised 3D organoid and organ on a chip systems covering a number of organs relevant to disease mechanisms and drug safety, representing key aspects of patient organ-level functions and disease.

 Complex Cell Models (CCMs) have great potential to make preclinical research more likely to predict a drug’s effects in clinical trials. There has been much interest in validating these systems, with widespread engagement with regulators to speed up their use and improve capabilities.

CCMs, such as 3D biological models and testing systems using human tissue, can provide data that is more relevant to patients than animal tests. Ultimately, in the long-term, they could replace traditional 2D cell cultures and animal testing in pre-clinical research.

Chris Molloy, CEO of Medicines Discovery Catapult, said: “It is vital that we maintain our global competitiveness and R&D services can be a major sector driving international trade. The report’s findings help shape our strategy at MDC and we will continue to strengthen R&D productivity to create new medicines for patients.”

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