The creation of successful new drugs has always been a fairly hit or miss affair. The goal of the pharmaceuticals industry has been to tailor the properties of drugs so that they act in more precise and predictable ways.
Advances in molecular biology in the early 1980s provided researchers with tools that offered the promise of making such a feat possible. These developments were right on the leading edge of scientific research and it was by no means certain whether they would find any useful industrial applications. Nevertheless, the companies, realising the potential, contributed up to £30,000 each and persuaded the Government to part with more than £500,000. Seven years on, the research has not produced a commercial drug but the participants have acquired expertise in a technology that is likely to provide the basis for the design of the next generation of drugs.
Both the IT initiative and the pharmaceutical technology transfer programmes were successful in that each provided its participants with new skills and techniques with which to develop products that give them an edge over the competition.
Unfortunately, in the case of Alvey the Government was not prepared to see the programme through to fruition because of its belief that industry should be left to its own devices. The cost of that view is a disillusioned research community and a crumbling UK computer industry. The pharmaceuticals industry has shown it to be a myth that the UK is not good at turning innovation into commercial success. But for that to become more widespread, Government must abandon a decade-old dogma and acknowledge its own role in creating the conditions for that to happen.
(Pallab Ghosh is a science and technology writer.)