UK: Genomics - An Opportunity For Growth And Differentiation For The UK Life Science Industry?

Last Updated: 9 October 2015
Article by Elizabeth Hampson

On 29 September a report on the Genomics industry in the UK which we had prepared for the Office for Life Sciences was published. The report looks at the size, growth trends and industry composition of the market and provides insight into the potential drivers, challenges and opportunities facing the industry in the UK.i This blog highlights some of the key trends in human genomics, the development of the emergent UK market and the barriers that will need to be overcome if the benefits to the UK are to be fully realised.

Genomics is a relatively new branch of science and has grown as a result of scientific breakthroughs in recent decades. Genomics uses DNA sequencing techniques and bioinformatics to sequence, assemble and analyse the function and structure of genomes (the complete set of DNA within an individual). Knowledge of an individuals' genetic make-up can help determine their predisposition toward certain genetic diseases, inform the best course of treatment and contribute to the development of diagnostic and therapeutic solutions for specific diseases (precision medicine). These advanced developments have only recently become a possibility due to an exponential decline in sequencing costs, faster processing techniques and large scale government and pharmaceutical industry investment.

Genomics is a fast-growing and highly dynamic industry and, while estimates vary, the global genomics market is currently valued at around £8 billion. The general consensus is that market will grow rapidly (with an annual growth rate of 15 per cent), driven by the falling cost of sequencing, growing investment from pharmaceutical companies and a plethora of national and international projects . Such projects include the Human Genome Project, the Saudi Human Genome Project and the UK's 100,000 Genomes Project.ii

Indeed, the 100,000 Genomes Project, which was launched with some £200 million of public sector investment, is providing the UK with a key competitive edge. By working in partnerships with industry, who are themselves investing significantly in genomics, it is seen by investors and industry experts as a significant step forward for the UK genomics industry.

The research identified the genomics value chain, the process by which genomics samples are transformed into useable information to develop treatment or improve patient care, as comprising five stages:

  • sampling: the process of extracting, cleansing and transporting DNA samples (e.g. blood or saliva samples)
  • sequencing: the process of decoding the sequence of nucleotides within a genome. This is currently the largest part of the value chain in the UK
  • analysis: understanding whether the sequence of nucleotides reveals any variation when compared to other genomes, standardising the information and identifying areas for investigation 
  • interpretation: translating any observed variations into insights that drive clinical actions and treatment options
  • application: using the genomic information to provide diagnostic treatments, targeted therapies or inform drug development. The main users of applied genomics are currently pharmaceutical companies but in the longer term will include healthcare systems and clinicians.

The research suggests that commercial revenues from the UK genomics industry are around 10 per cent of the global market, or some £0.8 billion. The analysis, which includes interviews with industry experts, suggests that the growth potential in the UK is between 13 and 25 per cent per year. Taking into account the momentum now being provided by the 100,000 Genomes Project, the report concludes that the most likely growth scenario for the UK genomics industry, from 2015 to 2018, is 20 per cent.

Currently, the domestic UK genomics industry is characterised by smaller companies, many of which have between one and 10 employees and are at a pre-revenue or spin-out stage. These tend to be concentrated around Cambridge, Oxford and London, reflecting the strong academic base for genomics in the UK. However, many of the larger genomics companies in the UK are foreign-owned.

Currently, over 60 per cent of UK genomics revenues are generated by companies focused on the sequencing stage, with only small proportions assigned to sampling, analysis, interpretation and analysis. However, the sequencing stage is relatively mature and expected to be the slowest-growing of the value chain stages. As the scale of data generated by genomics grows, services further down the value chain, such as data analysis and clinical interpretation, will be in high demand. Going forward, we expect significantly more commercial revenues from genomic analysis and interpretation. We can also expect an increase in employment opportunities as government investment in this industry has historically had a multiplier effect with regard to associated industrial jobs.

The UK is in a strong position internationally in the field of genomics. It has played a key role in the history and development of genomics and has strong academic talent and expertise in the field. UK universities are also improving their abilities to turn academic insights into commercial solutions. This can be seen in the growing number of medical spin-outs in the UK and also in the industry composition of UK companies. The challenge for the UK is to scale and effectively commercialise more ideas so that its academic advantage is reflected in industrial success at scale.

However, the genomics industry is still at a very early stage of development and presents complex challenges. Using genomics to predict, treat and ultimately cure diseases involves understanding complex interactions between multiple genes and the impacts of environmental factors, requiring significant clinical investment. This complication will act as a constraint to industry growth and, in particular, to the growth of the genomic applications market (the effective integration of validated genomic knowledge into the practice of medicine and public health). Other key challenges that will need to be overcome for the UK to be seen as a good place to invest in and develop genomics businesses include:

  • addressing the skills shortage in bioinformatics and genomics -these are key skills required to grow genomics commercially and improve the application of genomics in the NHS
  • scaling up commercialisation - applying some of the lessons from the growth of the UK biotechnology industry may help accelerate the development of genomics businesses 
  • accelerating application -continuing to build the relationship between academic research and clinical application in the NHS will be critical.

Genomics is an exciting development with enormous potential to transform the health and wealth of the UK. The Governments support of the 100,000 Genome Project should help usher in a new era of personalised medicine that will benefit patients while generating research and business opportunities. More generally, the development of genomics in the UK has the potential to provide a new source of economic growth while establishing the UK as a leading international base for genomics science and industry.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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