By Joseph Willits
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Ahead of David Cameron's announcement later today that patients will be given the opportunity to trial pioneering new drugs before the end of clinical tests, David Willetts, Science and Universities Minister has spoken of the need for a "very clear route” from the research lab to NHS patient.
Joining up the health service and the life sciences industry, he said, was "a government role" – because of the sheer amounts of public money financing medical research in universities and the National Health Service. Whilst there are "excellent private businesses", Willetts said, "we haven’t done as well as we should have done in this country" in bridging the gap and developing "a very clear route from the idea in the publicly-supported research lab through to the application to a patient in the publicly-supported NHS". Having "a very clear route through", Willetts said, was the "way to get the businesses, the growth in the future" and "the best thing for patients as well".
Writing in the Times this morning, Willetts continued with Camilla Cavendish's "valley of death" analogy, that "so many great British discoveries in the perilous journey from the lab to the world outside" are set to face. Alluding to Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade , Willetts said the Medical Research Council had "identified 360 promising ideas developed under its auspices, 280 of which are awaiting commercialisation". The NHS, Willetts said, had to show it was "open to help and then to adopting them for UK patients if successful" in order to "persuade investors to fund these innovations… We need to make it much easier to show “proof of concept” in a hospital environment. Then the private sector will invest".
Willetts also warned of the UK being "left behind", since "new discoveries and technologies in biology and in e-health and telemedicine are making undreamt-of treatments possible":
"New competitors such as Singapore are fighting fiercely with more established research clusters such as Boston to become centres for early clinical stage trials. Unless the UK adjusts to this new reality by tackling cumbersome regulation and making the NHS more receptive to medical innovations, there is a serious risk that we will be left behind."
Reports of Cameron's speech today in the Daily Mail and the Sun, focused on the serious difficulties that the sharing of medical records with private companies would cause in relation to patient confidentiality. Later, the Prime Minister will announce adjustments to the NHS constitution so that researchers and drug companies are able to look through medical records to see who would benefit from clinical trials. Roger Goss of Patient Concern described it as "the death of patient confidentiality". Asked about this issue, Willetts said:
"There has to be absolute protection for the confidentiality of the individual patients data, and it shouldn't be possible to trace it back to the individual. This is above all in the interest of NHS patients."
The benefits from the proposals would only be achieved "if we can be absolutely confident of full protection of patient confidentiality" Willetts said.