Are we getting value for our tax money in biomedical research? Nick Papadimitriou exposes how the UK Medical Research Council is squandering our tax money to help corporations cash in on the health market.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) in the UK is responsible for dispensing tax payer's money to fund biomedical research, both in its own research facilities and in select university laboratories.
Back in 1998, a Biotechnology Exploitation Group (BEG) was established by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to maximise the economic potential of biotechnology . As the Research Councils are responsible to the Office of Science and Technology, which has been placed by successive governments within the DTI, it was hardly surprising that MRC should devote itself to servicing the needs of the pharmaceutical industry. To this end, MRC has been siphoning off huge sums of public money into establishing a strong research base for biotechnology and instituting a host of mechanisms to commercialise research results. The division of MRC Technology [MRCT] was set up specifically to offer research methods and products to prospective partners eager to muscle in on a world market estimated to be worth $500bn over the next three years . MRC labs and expertise have been given over entirely to developing a new generation of genetic medicines. A DTI funded programme and magazine, Biotech Means Business, dating from 1998, anticipated that by 2000, UK revenue from biotechnology would be £9bn .
MRC's strategic plan for 1999-2003  was to "encourage knowledge transfer, commercial exploitation and provision of scientific advice for the benefit of national wealth and health." Note how 'health' comes after 'wealth' in MRC's national priorities. "Investors are looking at the MRC to see what research there is that could provide the basis for new biotech companies" said Sir George Rada . However, decades of investment and research in biotechnology resulted in just twenty genetically modified medicines hitting the market .
Anticipating the new growth-industry of bio-informatics on the heels of the Human Genome Project [HGP], MRC is increasing the number of grants for training places in the field . It has already invested more than £150m over the past three years into HGP , and a further £120m was allocated last year to building new synchrotron facilities for studying proteins .
MRC places great emphasis on the development of patents and licensing portfolios. It has set up a special UK Medical Ventures Fund with a current holding of £40m, and an MRC owned company, Medical Ventures Management [MVM LTD], to facilitate the establishment of 'spin-out' and 'start-up' companies .
For example, Celltech Group was founded in 1980 to develop and exploit MRC research findings. Mergers with Chiroscience and Medeva over the past two years turned Celltech into one of Europe's biggest biotech consortium. Celltech's activities are wide, and include gene therapy and cancer treatments. Patent licensing also provides strong revenues.
Another company doing well out of publicly funded research is AERES Biomedical Ltd, launched in February 2000. It arose out of MRC's Collaborative Centre (MRCCC), which was a precursor of MRC Technology. The Antibody Engineering Group, one of the core groups at MRCCC, was set up in to develop and exploit the new technologies of CDR-grafting, invented at the MRC laboratory of Molecular Biology by Dr. Greg Winter in 1988, and patented by the MRC under the 'Winter' patent. AERES was created to develop and commercialise the invention. Working with business partners, AERES has 'humanised' 20 mouse antibodies. Six therapeutic anti-bodies have already gone into clinical trials .
Last year, MRC increased its licensing and patents income by selling off another company, Cambridge Antibody Technologies (CAT). Like other companies evolving out of MRC research, CAT is largely privately owned though MRC retains an interest, partly through shares, partly through income generated in the first place.
For MRC, income from patents has increased from 3m in 1999 to 7.6 in 2000. In comparison, Celltech is floating on the stock market with a capital rating of £3.229bn, while CAT's market value is £1.38 bn .
MRCT advertise "Licensing Opportunities" on their website. These include items such as "Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus Typing" (a patented method of determining which particular PERV virus is active in xenotransplantation attempts). Markers for Major Affective Disorders, collaborative research into transgenics and so on . Nowhere will you see on MRCT's website any indication of research in Environmental Medicine or Nutrition. In fact, both areas were part of MRC's research profile as recently as 1998, but have been handed over to other bodies since. At the time of their discontinuation [1998-99] Environment and Nutrition combined received £10m out of a total annual budget of more than £250m . This is a paltry sum, and especially so when compared to spending in all areas relating to genetics and rapidly expanding genomics (see below). There is no funding for research into holistic health or complementary medical research at all.
MRC has worked closely with industry to build an infrastructure to exploit the next wave of genetic medicines. Celltech and CAT are the flagship companies, and MRC is receiving increasing funding from Government. On the back of New Labour's ascent to power in 1997, a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) awarded an additional £90m to MRC over three years, and another, more recent, CSR has led to a further increase of £89m over the coming three years . As a consequence, MRC investment in biotech has exceeded any reasonable outlay for such an uncertain venture.
The interests of the drug giants are well represented in MRC. The Molecular and Cellular Medicine Board includes a representative from Aventis Pharmaceuticals. The Neurosciences and Mental Health Board includes Dr J Hunter from SmithKline Beecham. The biotech company Zeneca has Dr I Kimber in the Department of Toxicology. George Poste, Chief Science and Technical Advisor at SmithKline Beecham was, until recently, a member of MRC's Strategy Development Group .
Last November, MRC pledged £1.9bn over the next four years to help finance and exploit the findings of HGP in 'health genomics'. This is in addition to the £675m already earmarked for constructing high tech facilities to study genes and proteins. As part of the £1.9 billion package for 'health genomics', a Population Biomedical Collection will be established by the Wellcome Trust, a charity, in collaboration with the Departments of Health. The MRC's contribution to that project will be approximately £20m .
Sir George Radda, speaking for the MRC, assures us that, working out the functions of genes is " the key to designing new approaches to detecting illness early and to preventing and treating diseases. "The Collection promises to be one of the most exciting scientific initiatives of recent times" he said, "It could deliver benefits for the health of many generations to come". The study will, in the first instance, involve half a million volunteers donating blood samples from which their DNA would be extracted. The same volunteers will provide lifestyle information to the researchers. Over a period of years, this information would be tracked against their medical records. A small number of regional centres across the UK will be set up to recruit volunteers, with the overall study centrally managed and co-ordinated.
These studies have already raised concerns over the invasion of privacy and the erosion of civil rights. The database can fall into the hands of a private company and its contents sold to subscribers. Critics have call these studies "seriously misplaced", as they are based on the assumption that genes are what makes us tick, ignoring complex interactions between genes and the environment , except in so far as individual 'lifestyle' is being taken into account. They run the risk of marginalising and victimising those most in need of care and treatment.
The overwhelming causes of ill health are environmental and social. The health of nations will be infinitely better served by devoting resources to disease prevention, not just by advocating healthy lifestyles, but to phasing out the hundreds of known carcinogens and systemic poisons among industrial and agricultural chemicals. At the same time, we need to diversify public research efforts, especially into areas that do not result in expensive patented medicines and treatments, such as environmental and holistic health-care.