Innovation and development in the life sciences sector has been a government priority for some time and remains a hot topic in Parliament. As recently as 19th June 2018, Jeremy Hunt declared that ‘the life sciences sector is critical to the UK economy’. In 2017, the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Report by Professor John Bell was delivered, highlighting the importance of this sector and how it could be further supported. One recommendation, focused on data, was to launch several ‘Digital Innovation Hubs’ in regions across the UK. This article will take a closer look at what these Hubs are going to be, and whether they will be helpful for the life sciences sector, and the general public.
WHAT ARE DIGITAL INNOVATION HUBS?
The core recommendation provided by Sir John Bell was to set up ‘two to five Digital Innovation Hubs providing data across regions of three to five million people’. The report doesn’t say where, or which people would be included, but it does state that these hubs are a move towards being able to provide a national approach to generating real world data that can be ‘appropriately accessed’ by researchers in the life sciences sector.
It was announced in June 2018 that Health Data Research UK (HDR-UK) will be at the forefront of delivering the digital innovation hub programme. They will begin leading the project to deliver these hubs in August 2018. Whilst the report indicates that Sir John Bell’s vision is for them to cover the entire United Kingdom, this has not been discussed publicly by the HDR-UK, who are probably trying not to run before they can walk.
HOW ARE THEY MEANT TO HELP?
Digital innovation hubs are intended to empower researchers by providing access to extensive and anonymised data sets. This data should be available more quickly to researchers than it is currently, to help speed up trials and help researchers to spend their time more wisely.
How Helpful Will They be to the Life Sciences Sector?
As the adage goes, knowledge is power, and that is most definitely true in life sciences. The initial 2-5 Digital Innovation Hubs have the potential to support research in the life sciences sector and make the UK more competitive when it comes to clinical trials. However, their usefulness will depend largely on how many hubs are set up in the longterm. 2-5 is a good start, but will not cover the whole of the UK, meaning a vast amount of data will not be made easily accessible to researcher via this project.
Sir John Bell suggested that researchers should be given access to primary, secondary, tertiary, social care and community data. This indicates that the data sets held by these hubs will be extremely broad and will therefore be useful to life science researchers conducting a wide range of trials.
HOW HELPFUL WILL THEY BE TO THE PUBLIC?
The life sciences industry is constantly striving to create better treatments, develop better technology, and find new cures. Supporting researchers with easier access to extensive pools of data will act as a catalyst for development, meaning better healthcare can be delivered to the public, quicker. As conservative MP, Alan Mak, stated ‘the use of big data and artificial intelligence in medical research has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives’.
‘Public engagement and trust will be essential’ – HDR-UK
However, the only way digital innovation hubs can be useful to the life sciences sector, and the general public, is if people trust that their data will be kept safe. A key concern that members of the public may have is the potential for data leaks. It was just last year that the NHS faced a data loss crisis, with over 500,000 pieces of confidential data being lost over several years, as well as a monumental cyber-attack on their computer system.
Consequently, trust in medical industries handling sensitive data, and sharing it with life sciences researchers, may not be at an all time high. However, HDR-UK have promised that any Hubs delivered by them will ‘operate within the highest standards of data security, privacy and ethical approval’ – this includes complying with the GDPR.
Until HDR-UK begins its work in August, it is impossible to say just how successful this project will be, and to what extent it will help the life sciences sector and the general public. However, if all goes well, it is fair to say that the creation and utilisation of these hubs will help the spread of knowledge, providing the data necessary to help scientists make advancements which in the future may well help populations within the UK and further afield.
Further announcements are expected later this year, so Kelly Services will be keeping a watchful eye over the project’s progression.