01 Jul 2009   |   News

Global collaboration can make us healthier

Reconciling growing demand and shrinking budgets will require more international collaboration in healthcare, say leading experts.

Helmut Schuhsler, Managing Partner of TVM Capital

Rising expectation in the emerging economies of Asia is poised to prompt a surge in demand and a wave of innovation in healthcare. “This is a huge opportunity for forward-thinking companies,” Helmut Schuhsler, Managing Partner of TVM Capital, told delegates at the recent Science|Business conference, The Innovation Economy.

While budget limits will play an ever-more critical part in healthcare policy over the coming years, the single most important factor influencing future healthcare will be the massive growth in demand from the Asia.

Currently, some 3–4 billion of the world’s population are largely invisible to the healthcare market. But that will change, as health education increases expectations during the next 20-30 years, Schuhsler said, in a session on ‘Innovation for a Healthier Planet’.

Innovation in Asian markets will not be just in products, but also in services, and how efficiently services are provided. “With healthcare in India at one tenth of the cost of Europe, and emerging markets unlikely to be able to afford Western healthcare costs, new and more affordable healthcare services will emerge to meet this need,” said Schuhsler.

The session heard how three huge forces are coming together in health. First an avalanche of technology from across numerous disciplines – stem cells, antibodies, regenerative medicine, new imaging techniques, medical devices, biomarkers, diagnostics and surgery – threatens to add to cost, without giving general benefit.

Second, healthcare budgets threaten to overwhelm national economies in the West, whilst in the developing world healthcare inequality continues to increase. Add to this the third force – of the cost of caring for an ageing population beset by chronic disease.

Global collaboration in developing products and processes could be the single thread to solve these pressing problems. But with health budgets the sole responsibility of national governments it remains difficult to develop international collaborations.

Brian Agar, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries Associations, said that the industry had “struggled for years” to get critical mass from academia into industrial structures. However, one new programme, the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a pan-European public private partnership approved at the end of 2007, points the way forward with its €2 billion funding and a 6-year plan to identify and target bottlenecks in the pre-competitive research phase of drug development.

For Andrew Lynn, founder and chief executive of the tissue therapy company Orthomimetics, the main bottleneck, and area where international collaboration would help most, is at the other end of the innovation process. “There is a need to simplify, speed up and reduce the cost of the approvals process,” he said.

Many products are failing to clear technology or regulatory hurdles, and must be put through separate approvals processes in different countries. If large companies find it difficult to steer round the different regulations, there is no hope for SMEs.

Another area calling out for international collaboration to promote innovation is patents, said Peter Chen, Vice President of ETH Zürich. Despite the acknowledged excellence of many of its scientists, Europe will always be held back in the global innovation league by its patents legislation. The key issue is cost. “Organisations, especially universities, find patent costs prohibitive,” Chen said.

After three years, organisations with developed intellectual property have to replace the single European patent with separate national patents. Universities cannot afford to do this in 27 different national administrations, said Chen, and consequently the patent is usually dropped. For public private partnerships the cost is crippling.

“It makes no sense,” Chen said, especially given that the EU has the ability to fix this. The single most important thing the European Union could do for its ageing population is to reform EU patent law. “And all of Europe’s start-up companies would thank you for this too.”


Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up