Professor Sir John Bell GBE, Chair of the Oxford Academic Health Partners and Regius Professor of Medicine, University of Oxford.
Innovation Perspectives is OAHP’s Q&A series with OAHP Board Members and partner organisation leads. Our Chair, Professor Sir John Bell, shares his perspectives on Oxford’s role delivering the UK’s Life Sciences Vision, how University-NHS partnerships can support the NHS to be more resilient, and inclusivity in research and innovation.
The UK Government Life Sciences Vision sets out seven missions for health and care. How can the Oxford region be best mobilised to capitalise on these missions?
There are several important aspects of the Life Sciences Vision. One is the choice of the areas of focus, which were chosen because they were the biggest burdens of disease in the NHS. These are all areas where it’s been tough to get a lot of commercial activity and interest, and the idea was to try and make it easier for big commercial entities to operate in these spaces.
Oxford could contribute to that environment across a number of themes, but the areas where I think we’ve got particular strengths and have a big role to play are in the early diagnosis of cancer and immuno-oncology, mental health, dementia and respiratory.
Not surprisingly, there are some areas where I don’t think we have much to say, but we should all think about whether we’ve got a contribution to make.
This does mean a change in the way we think about the research we do, because it has to be done in partnership with industry and it needs to be mission-based with a clear endpoint.
What are the challenges in creating these mission-based projects and activities?
The two big questions centrally and locally are getting the leadership right and funding the project appropriately. But I think the real issue is putting together teams that can meaningfully contribute to those particular outcomes and compete successfully in the competitions.
What do you see as currently the biggest challenges ahead for the UK life sciences sector?
Well, the biggest problem for the life sciences sector is that the NHS doesn’t buy the drugs, devices or technology. It’s basically impermeable to innovation, and this remains the biggest single problem by a long way. Inward investment from the life sciences industry won’t happen if the NHS isn’t a decent market for their products. Everything else is pretty good.
What makes Oxford such a great place for life science start-ups?
Almost all life sciences companies recognise that it’s really helpful to be close to centres of academic excellence, both for the generation of ideas, for the adjacency to start-ups, but also for access to highly talented people who can work in that space.
Oxford, of course, as the dominant life sciences campus in the UK, is obviously a great place for them to work. So we’ve never had any trouble attracting the major players in the industry to come and work here – that’s why GSK, Novo Nordisk and BMS are here, along with a whole host of other companies.
We’re at the tail end of a global pandemic. What is the role of university and NHS collaborations in supporting the region’s NHS services to be more responsive and resilient to the next health crisis?
The University of Oxford can play a pretty important role, as it did in the last pandemic, by being ready to go with interventions, therapies and research programs that can be activated immediately in the presence of a new challenge. The biggest acute threat will be another infectious pandemic, and Oxford is very well-positioned to contribute to addressing that in a variety of ways.
There are also, what I would view as, chronic pandemics. So, for example, the epidemic of obesity and associated diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the epidemic of cancers in young people, and the epidemic of mental health problems – particularly in people aged 20-35 years.
These are bad problems and I think universities have an important role in helping to manage them. But the problem in the UK is that the NHS is pretty disabled at the moment and isn’t really able to step up to deal with some of these existential threats to health across the population.
So, because the NHS is very integral to the Oxford Academic Health Partners’ agenda, we need to think about whether there are things that Oxfordshire’s clinical arena could do that would improve the situation. I think things will only get better if the NHS adopts innovation to help fix these problems at a rather more systematic level.
You’re chair of the Our Future Health project, which is aiming to recruit 5 million patients from across the country for research. What steps can Oxford’s health researchers take to be more inclusive in their approach to research and innovation?
Diversity and inclusion are major pillars of the Our Future Health programme, and rather gratifyingly about 13% of people recruited so far are from ethnically diverse populations, so our socioeconomic profile looks pretty similar to the national profile. This only happened because we put a real emphasis on trying to achieve that.
In Oxford, this is hard to do locally because we are essentially an upper-middle-class population, but there are significant pockets of deprivation and ethnic diversity across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire. The tendency is just to forget about them because it’s easier to recruit in other places, and I think we just need to remember that we need to work harder to get people from those places involved in clinical research. It’s in everybody’s interest that those populations are interested and engaged in research.
But you can’t just go into an ethnically diverse population as a middle-class, white person and say, “We think this research is a good idea.” Researchers need to work through members of their community to build an understanding for what they’re trying to do, and work with these community members to help them to persuade people that their research project is a good idea and that it’s of great interest to their health and future happiness. It’s important to sell it from within.