UK Precision Medicine Catapult: what went wrong?

Philippa Brice

29 June 2017

The demise of the short-lived Precision Medicine Catapult (PMC), rumoured for some months, is now official with an announcement from Innovate UK that it has closed.

The PMC was launched in 2015, with Cambridge as the coordinating hub and linked centres of excellence planned across the UK in Belfast, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Oxford. The PMC’s stated mission was to create the world's leading precision medicine ecosystem’ and make the UK ‘the most attractive place in the world for the development and delivery of precision medicine, bringing economic growth and improved patient outcomes’. It was to do this by supporting the development and clinical implementation of precision medicine products and services, working with commercial and academic researchers, hospitals and healthcare authorities.

Failure to launch

Whilst such initiatives inevitably take some time to get off the ground, from the beginning mysteriously little was seen or heard of the PMC, even in Cambridge. What then of the innovators and their companies, academic institutions and hospitals supported by the PMC? Innovate UK funding must presumably have been provided to some under the auspices of the Catapult, but no details were available from the PMC website, which was taken down this week and now redirects to the positively framed announcement titled Additional responsibilities for Medicines Discovery Catapult’.

The release says that the board of directors of the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) and the PMC ‘have proposed the transfer of some aspects of the scientific mission of PMC to the MDC’, a decision endorsed by Innovate UK. It states that the MDC will now focus not only on medicines discovery, but also diagnostics, biomarkers and clinical trial support. This move is said to reflect the fact that precision medicine is becoming mainstream and integrated within modern drug discovery’ and will allow the MDC to operate as a ‘one-stop shop for all drug-based approaches’ – possibly less promising in terms of diagnostics and biomarkers.

Calling to account?

It is not yet known just how much tax-payer money went into the PMC, including the Cambridge hub, but interestingly the announcement notes that the precision medicine sector will be able to access funding from Innovate UK, allowing them to set their own strategies beyond the previous constraints of the PMC’. It is difficult to know what these constraints might have been, since information on who received funding is not readily available, but certainly something prevented the PMC from operating effectively.

Hopefully, the MDC will be able to pick up some of the pieces, but questions undoubtedly remain. It is to be hoped that a review will be forthcoming to both set out precisely what the PMC achieved, what hampered it, and lessons to be learned from its demise.

(Opportunity) lost in translation

The PMC was a sadly wasted opportunity to grow the precision medicine sector. This is bad news for the economy, since a global reputation for excellence in pharmaceutical R&D and clinical implementation is more important than ever in the light of Brexit. Ultimately, it is bad news for patients, who should be benefiting as quickly as possible from innovative precision medicine – nearly two years and unclear amounts of money have gone, with no obvious effects.

The PHG Foundation has spent the last twenty years calling for action to address the gaps in translation from ‘bench to bedside’. The primary focus to plug this widely acknowledged gap has been to incentivise translational (as opposed to basic) research, along with other efforts to support the development and trial of innovative products. Indeed, precision medicine itself has been proposed as one solution to the gap in translation, since it allows a much more informed and targeted approach to matching patients effectively with potential therapeutics. Our own focus has been on a supportive regulatory and public policy environment, and the subtle but important problems posed by movement from emerging clinical product or service into widespread healthcare application and patient benefit. There is no simple, single solution, but rather a need for a whole range of actions.

The loss of any one initiative is not an insurmountable setback to our collective journey towards more personalised and effective healthcare; funding will still be available for innovators in precision medicine to develop their products, and the efforts of the Accelerated Access Review and NHS England’s Innovation and Technology Tariff should help to speed uptake in the health system.

The excellent Pharmacogenetics and Stratified Medicine Network continues to do a sterling job of connecting different sectors to support collaborative partnership and clinical adoption in precision medicine – on a financial shoestring; how much more could they have achieved in the last two years given just a fraction of the PMC funding? In an age of long-lasting austerity, the glaring failure of the PMC is unquestionably frustrating: we must do better.