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We Must Focus on Science, Not Geography

We’re just over the halfway point of 2019 and it’s fair to say the year has already been one of tumultuous political and social change. Whether its Brexit in Europe or continued fractured politics in the Americas, we are experiencing a time of great change, during which organizations dedicated to maintaining links across borders become increasingly important. My organization, The Pistoia Alliance, is a non-profit group formed in 2009 by representatives of AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Pfizer, with the goal of lowering barriers to innovation in life sciences R&D through collaboration. 

Now, as we look forward to the next decade in life sciences, our mission hasn’t changed. In fact, it has become even more imperative. To deliver new drugs and treatments to a growing global population, we must work together. And to explore the potential of new technologies, such as AI, we will have to come together and agree international standards and protocols for use. At our recent European members conference in London, more than 250 delegates gathered to discuss these themes, as well as to take part in numerous workshops and discussions over three days. In my keynote address, I spoke about the growing need to focus on science, not geography. I also outlined why it is important for the industry to show willingness to work cooperatively and to form links with global organizations; whether this means being more open to sharing pre-competitive data with peers, joining a working group to identify life science use-cases for blockchain, or agreeing a Unified Data Model for biological information. 

We also heard from Mark Caulfield, Interim CEO of Genomics England, a member of The Pistoia Alliance, on the news that the organization has sequenced more than 104,000 genomes – over 91,000 of which are accessible for research. Mark emphasized the vast potential these kinds of data hold for R&D, but cautioned that genomic datasets must be made available internationally to enable greater insights from analysis that will aid diagnoses and treatments for all patients. Mark explained that Genomics England currently holds more than 1.6 billion data points, which organizations around the world could benefit from, and that – as it makes progress towards its next goal of sequencing five million genomes – it will be essential to work together to cut costs and share expertise.

Science is too precious to be kept in one country, and the free exchange of ideas – while politicians continue to argue about physical borders – must be enabled.

Chris Molloy, the CEO of the UK’s Medicines Discovery Catapult and another member of The Pistoia Alliance, discussed cross-border collaboration and data sharing, explaining why the life sciences sector must come together to improve how the industry manages “smart” data. He spoke about the fact that three-quarters of UK SMEs today go abroad to access patient data, and why it’s essential for those in the life sciences to work with patient groups and regulators to change this situation. He also talked about unleashing the power of industry networks to get new therapeutics to patients faster – reiterating that this drive can’t just be a UK-wide effort but must be linked globally, with scientists ready to share data and skills.

The drive to collaborate is a subject very close to my heart. When I first started my career in the 1970s, the importance of cross-disciplinary working became increasingly apparent, but without a group pushing for it, collaboration remained a challenge. And that’s one of the reasons I became President of The Pistoia Alliance. Today, my aim is to make a difference through the projects we work on. Our Advisory Board is made up of senior industry figures who also feel passionately about collaboration and provide guidance on priority areas. Our projects are varied; for example, helping to develop the “Lab of the Future,” a center of excellence for AI in life sciences, and the development of a Chemical Safety Library to improve lab safety worldwide.  

I am particularly passionate about seeing the industry launch affordable medicines that society really needs – and I am working hard to bring together all the right stakeholders to meet this goal! Ultimately, successful research relies on successful collaboration – some of the biggest breakthroughs in science have come from joint international efforts. Science is too precious to be kept in one country, and the free exchange of ideas – while politicians continue to argue about physical borders – must be enabled.

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About the Author
Steve Arlington

President of The Pistoia Alliance, UK.

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