Boston, Massachusetts has a reputation as one of the top life sciences clusters in the world, due in large part to its unique cooperation between industry, government and academia. It has more biotech research and development employees than anywhere else in the USA and is home to thousands of well-funded life sciences companies who are driving innovation.
Thinking that I could learn a lot from what’s happening over in Boston, I attended the Bio International Convention which was held there in June. But it turns out that we Scots also have something that could be useful to them – high quality health data.
Boston has a world class precision medicine hub – it is well funded, the people there are well-educated and understand exactly what they want to do. However, they may have the right infrastructure, but they don’t have first-class data. Due to private healthcare, data in the US is fragmented and therefore their local hospitals will not have the depth or quality of data that they need.
Here at SMSIC, when it comes to data we have focused on quality over quantity. Scotland’s health data is world class, due in part to our small but fairly homogeneous population. Our NHS also puts us at an immediate advantage, thanks to the CHI (Community Health Index) number that is assigned to each person at birth and stays with them for life – all medical data is associated with this number. However, this data has no value unless there is an end user.
Because Boston is such a renowned centre for precision medicine, they understand how valuable data is. They know that you can generate lots of data, but it also needs context, like lifestyle, epigenetic factors and medical history. They have access to large sources of data but they are dispersed around the world and their quality is variable.
At the Bio International Convention I met lots of interesting people from a number of the key companies in precision medicine, most of whom have a presence in Boston, for whom health data on chronic diseases such as cancer, asthma and IBS is their main focus. In Scotland, due to our poor health as a nation, we can get access to large patient groups for all these diseases – something which is very attractive to these companies. Some of the companies we are already in discussions with about our non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) data commons project are also in Boston. That’s why I’m going back across the Atlantic soon to follow up on some of these leads.
The days of the big pharmaceutical companies doing everything by themselves have gone – they now understand they need to collaborate, so they are on the hunt for partners. In our excellent health data, Scotland definitely has something that they want - but they are not going to come and find us, so I am going to them.
It’s becoming a requirement for the big pharmaceutical companies to identify a patient group that is going to respond well to their medicine – whether that be because of their genetics or their lifestyle. This gives them some security that the drug they are developing has a market, and that it will work. In practice, this is still a dream – but high-quality health data could soon help make it a reality, and in Scotland we have as good quality data as anyone in the world.
The drug discovery ecosystem is a global opportunity - and this is one way in which Scotland can play a vital part.