SCIENCE COMMUNITY FIGHTS ITS CORNER
Health & Life Sciences Day packed a punch in more ways than one, as the International Business Festival entered its third week.
Industry heavy-hitters Lord Paul Drayson and Lord Jim O’Neill put forward their cases for the way business, academia and the NHS should work together, while the UK government’s new chief scientific officer Dr Patrick Vallance topped the bill with his first major public speech.
Also on the card was an appearance from former WBC World Cruiserweight Champion Tony Bellew, who has been signed up as an ambassador to SportPesa, one of the Festival’s day partners.
And there were fireworks on the Festival floor thanks to Eureka! Museum, which is planning a £17m base on the Wirral. Its staff were demonstrating experiments on the Invest Liverpool stand, where delegates brave – or daft – enough dipped their hands in water, grabbed a fistful of soap bubbles and watched them turned to fire with the help of some camping gas.
The centre's aim is to inspire the scientists of the future, and there was plenty to look up to on the Futures Stage in the form of one of the nation’s foremost industrialists Lord Drayson. The entrepreneur, who made his name in food manufacturing, bioscience and motorsport R&D before turning his attention to digital healthcare, said the UK was in prime position to take advantage of the AI revolution.
His company has been doing pioneering work with Oxford University academics and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. And he told the Futures Stage audience: “Through the use of AI for early identification of deterioration of patients in hospital, we have seen significant reduction in Oxford of patients having cardiac arrests.”
He said the UK was uniquely placed to take advantage of data science within healthcare because it was both at the forefront of AI and had “the most complete and valuable dataset on the planet” in the form of national NHS records.
“To fully realise the potential, deliver benefits to patients and create a successful industry in the UK we need an ambitious approach,” he said, referencing Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘moonshot’ pledge to deploy artificial intelligence to prevent more than 20,000 cancer-related deaths each year by 2033.
“The opportunity to do this is through partnership between universities, leading technology companies and the NHS itself, ensuring the NHS benefits not just from use of that technology but reinvestment back in the NHS to ensure it can deliver improved care in the future.”
The peer said local NHS trusts and academic institutions could take shareholdings in ventures as a way of “creating a pathway for innovation from fundamental science developed in private and tested within the NHS trust, and then commercialised more widely across the NHS and internationally”.
He told the day host, physicist and broadcaster Dr Jim al_Khalili, that AI could help detect the important “needle in a haystack” lesson from complex clinical data that would otherwise take thousands of man-hours. However, he emphasised that the UK also needed to create a regulatory framework to ensure AI tools were used ethically.
Dr Patrick Vallance warned that AI couldn’t be expected to deliver immediate solutions. During his first major public outing since taking up the position in April, he said: “There aren’t many situations where AI will tell you what to do,” he said “Where AI can really help is in terms of looking at datasets and seeing patterns that are otherwise not understandable and then using that to ask the question ‘what can I do about it’?”
He had begun his keynote speech by pointing out that the UK was on the leading edge of research “on a comparatively low budget”. The government was addressing that but much of the future investment would have to come from the private sector, he said.
Dr Vallance looked back to his career in R&D with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline to describe how openness could help to both advance medicine and boost business. The development of one antibiotic was hastened by opening up to US drug development Barda, which provided funding, he said. Likewise, releasing information to all groups working to combat malaria could speed results, he added.
Asked about whether government science was too focused on the ‘Grand Challenges’ set out in the industrial strategy – such as the ageing population – he said he would make it his mission to ensure making “science for citizens” was a core motivation.
“The Grand Challenges will ultimately affect people’s lives,” he said. “Science is a problem-solver for people.” And he said the ageing population presented opportunities for business.
Despite concerns over our ability to cope with an ageing society, Dr Vallance said the fact people were living longer was "a great science success story". And he struck a positive note for patients: “For the first time we are on the cusp of number of cures for disease. This isn’t 40 years off, you can see it already with some gene therapy.”
Boxer Tony Bellew might have cut an unorthodox figure when he arrived on the Festival floor during the networking lunch break. But he said he had the health of the community at heart when he took on the role of SportPesa ambassador, having visited north Liverpool's Rydal Gym to hear about the work being done for youngsters.
"I've been punching for 20 years and become a very successful man and it's my time to give back," he said. "I'm trying to help the youth in any way I can."
Mr Bellew said he had quickly had to grow from being a young sportsman to a businessman, developing a brand that has seen him taking up acting - in Rocky spinoff Creed - and a burgeoning career as a pundit.
"The higher the level, the quicker you have to realise about the business side of things," he said," he said.
"I was lucky. I had a very good friend to advise me and now I put 90% of what I earn back into property in Liverpool. I would love to fund some kind of business that would give back."
Former Goldman Sachs chairman Lord Jim O’Neill – who set out 27 recommendations to tackle the issue in a report for the government two years ago – was in fighting mood when it came to the agriculture sector when he took to the Futures Stage.
“Researchers have found resistance to [pneumonia drug] colistin – a last-in-line antibiotic [used when treatment with all other available drugs has failed] – because of trade with China, where it’s given to cows,” he complained. “Why do they need to use last-in-line antibiotics for animals? They have all these wonderful excuses but non of them are very persuasive.”
He was speaking during a panel discussion on antimicrobial resistance (AMR), during which he was asked whether an “antibiotic apocalypse” was imminent.
“Ten million people dying a year will feel like an apocalypse for much of Africa and India and we may be scared of doing any international travel or business if we don’t do anything about it,” he responded.
One audience member asked about the responsibility of the medical profession not to prescribe antibiotics inappropriately, such as to treat viruses against which they are ineffective.
Dr Laura O’Brien, vice-president of operations for day sponsor and flu vaccine developer Seqirus, said each year half a million parents demanded antibiotics for their children. “If they had been vaccinated against the virus, they probably wouldn’t be there,” she pointed out.
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine director Janet Hemingway said: “We don’t want to find increased mortality from routine operations because we’re getting sepsis and infections from that surgery. But we need to act now and we act collectively if we are going to stop that.”
Emmanuel Nsutebu, a consultant infectious diseases physician from the Royal Liverpool Hospital, was asked whether governments and international health bodies should play a greater role in developing drugs. But he said: “We all have responsibility for this. Pharmaceutical companies have a key role to play [in drug development]. We need to be careful with antibiotic stewardship. We don’t want to see them used too widely because it makes things less profitable.”
This could have knock-on effects for companies’ ability to fund further research and development, the panel agreed.
However, the debate ended on an optimistic note, with panellists noting that the issue remained in the spotlight.
“We need to keep the momentum going,” said Ms Hemingway. “As long as it’s on the political agenda, it was stay on pharmaceuticals’ agenda and the research agenda. It’s going to need continuous pressure to keep it there.”
The International Business Festival continues on Wednesday June 27, with a day dedicated to the Creative Industries.