RUTH SUNDERLAND: We must cure British ‘selloff-itis’ disease for the sake of our life


  • Jeremy Hunt has identified UK’s prowess in life sciences as one key to growth
  • Hunt is correct, but Chancellor must learn lessons from the past
  • Drive to promote life sciences goes back at least to the 1970s 

Jeremy Hunt has identified the UK’s prowess in life sciences as one key to growth.

He’s correct. The industry generates more than £94billion for the economy and employs around 280,000. But the Chancellor must learn lessons from the past. By serendipity, I stumbled over a story of an innovative drug that began here, but through a series of sales ended up being developed by foreign companies.

The drive to promote life sciences goes back at least to the 1970s. Politicians were equally keen to commercialise the scientific breakthroughs in our universities.

In the 1990s, a wave of young scientists became biotech entrepreneurs. They included a coterie who founded a company called Chiroscience.

Initially, it was backed by £3m of UK venture capital and floated on the stock market in 1994. It was one of the earliest deals done by Dame Kate Bingham, who later rose to prominence as chair of the government’s Covid vaccine task force.

Growth potential: The life sciences industry generates more than £94billion for the economy and employs around 280,000

Growth potential: The life sciences industry generates more than £94billion for the economy and employs around 280,000

The float was one of the first under what were then new Stock Exchange rules allowing riskier high-growth companies to float.

In other words, a textbook case of backing a promising growth company.

One of the bright ideas conceived at Chiroscience turned into what is now an osteoporosis drug called Evenity. The brainwave was sparked when scientists came across a gene in a small Afrikaner community in South Africa with high incidence of a rare disease causing excessive bone growth.

This was due to a genetic quirk that blocked the production of a hormone called sclerostin that stops bones growing too much. The Eureka moment at Chiroscience was that, if a treatment could switch off sclerostin temporarily, it could help people with the opposite problem, the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.

The result is a novel monoclonal antibody treatment being given as monthly injections to patients (including me).

Evenity was developed and brought to market by Belgian pharma company UCB and Amgen of the US. How this came about is a classic example of the British disease of selling our most promising assets.

Chiroscience was sold in 1994 to another UK company called Celltech. The latter had been set up by government in 1980, to address the concern the UK was missing out on the potential of biotech.

Celltech was given the rights to all new discoveries in the field in UK universities and the business was listed on the stock market, where it was in the FTSE 100.

In 2004, seeking funds to develop drugs including Evenity, Celltech was taken over by UCB. The Belgian company is not a predatory asset stripper and indeed looks to have been a good steward of Celltech, once the great hope for British biotech. UCB employs around 1,100 people – around 10 per cent of its global staff – in the UK, which is the site of one of its research hubs.

It has pledged to plough more than £1billion over five years into a new campus in Surrey for R&D, early development and commercialisation of medicines.

Sales of Evenity, which was approved in the UK in 2022, have grown fast. European sales in 2022 were €25m (£21.4m), up from €10m (£8.5m) the previous year.

In the autumn, partner Amgen said its sales of Evenity increased by more than 50 per cent to a record of $307m (£242m) in the third quarter of 2023.

It’s great to have UCB investing here. But it’s a shame we don’t have exciting biotech pioneers in the FTSE 100 as well. If we are going to make the most of our life science assets, it is imperative we find a cure for our national ailment of ‘selloff-itis’.





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