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Cambridge University, AstraZeneca and Cancer Research UK warn of their concerns as Brexit Committee visits Cambridge

Brexit Rally, The Guildhall, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Brexit Rally, The Guildhall, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Brexit ‘will hit research, curb investment and delay new medicines’.

The Brexit Committe in Cambridge with MRC LMBs Sir Hugh Pelham and Nobel Prize winner Venki Ramakrishnan. Picture: MRC LMB
The Brexit Committe in Cambridge with MRC LMBs Sir Hugh Pelham and Nobel Prize winner Venki Ramakrishnan. Picture: MRC LMB

Among a slew of Brexit concerns held by experts at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus is that 120,000 people in the EU could no longer have access to their cancer care.

The difficulty of validating batches of medicines for use across the EU border post-Brexit was high on the list of concerns, along with recruitment difficulties and a loss of funding.

This is what a panel of experts, including Professor Eilís Ferran, pro-vice chancellor for institutional international relations, Cambridge University; Professor Greg Hannon, senior group leader, Cancer Research UK; Michael Lawrence, business development director, Deimos Space UK; and Dr Andy Williams, vice-president of research and development, MedImmune and Cambridge transition team leader, AstraZeneca, told the Brexit Committee last week, chaired by Labour MP Hilary Benn.

Prof Ferran laid out the university’s main concerns. She said the loss of funding could amount to £60million a year.

“We’ve seen a number of instances of people who put in grants to the European Research Council which have been thrown out at the first round,” she said, “which, given the quality of their research and given past experience, was unexpected.”

Dr Williams said attracting ‘global talent’ was becoming a key concern for AstraZeneca, although Brexit hasn’t stopped it building its £500million global HQ and research and development centre on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

“Technology and innovation requires diversity of thinking,” he said, “and the ability to be able to recruit global talent into the UK is critical to that.

“The reason we came to Cambridge was to be in an attractive place for that global talent. We’re just seeing anecdotal evidence of them moving elsewhere.”

Both the university and AstraZeneca requested of the committee a minimum three-year transition period be put in place regarding Brexit.

Should there be no transition, Dr Williams said AstraZeneca would face associated trade costs of about $30million, although its main concern would be the bureaucracy around that, which Dr Williams said they would be able to handle, but smaller companies may not.

“The bigger concern is that patients in Europe would no longer have access to their oncology medicine. So material generated in the UK, without any agreement, without any harmonisation with European Medicines Agency, there is not a process by which at the moment they would get their medicines,” he said.

Each batch of medicines manufactured needs to be tested and validated, so anything manufactured in the UK would need to be validated in the EU before it can be distributed.

He said Zoladex, a drug used to treat men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer, which is manufactured by the company in the northwest, goes to 120,000 patients in Europe.

“We don’t want to have to tell them they can’t have their medicines,” Dr Williams said.

Although he said that while it is unlikely that companies would not release their drugs over the border, there will likely be more delays for a medicine getting to market.

“You’re going to go to the market with 500million before you go to the market with 50million. But in addition to that obviously we have manufacturing going on in the UK, and it’ll be difficult to justify further investment in manufacturing in the UK if we then can’t use those products within the European setting as well.

“At the moment we’ve actually stopped additional investment within our north-west manufacturing facility until we have greater clarity about how that would work.”

Although AstraZeneca is not exiting the north-west, where it employs 4,000 people, Dr Williams said the company sees potential to be world-leading in manufacturing from that base. The committee divulged that GlaxoSmithKline, a competitor of AstraZeneca, has said that Brexit could cost them £60-70million to build six new laboratories and reauthorise products, but Dr Williams said it would be less for AstraZeneca, which employs 2,000 in Cambridge.

“We have slight advantages,” he said. “We have a Swedish site, so we already have the infrastructure and we have the people. You have to have a qualified person to do the work and that qualified person has to be resident in the EU as well, according to EU rules.”

Chairman Hilary Benn told the Cambridge Independent: “We really are running out of time to let everyone know what it is the government is going to seek and let alone begin the process of trying to negotiate it.

“Uncertainty is bad for business, it’s bad for investment. There are a lot of strengths here. What really came across today were the benefits of collaboration and that’s the benefit of this kind of science park arrangement. But the sooner the uncertainty can be removed the better.

“What we don’t know is what kind of investments that might have come here are currently on hold because people are unsure about what the future will bring.

“I think the most important thing to say is that what has been achieved here in Cambridge is a really powerful reason for why we should seek to maintain as much collaboration and involvement and influence and voice.

“What is evident is that the British voice and British expertise in research has had a really important part to play in shaping how these European institutions and programmes have developed. And why would you want to lose that?

“We need the government to seek the right things in terms of this negotiation, for example, of course we should stay in Horizon 2020 because a lot of funding comes to research that is undertaken in Cambridge. We would have to contribute towards that programme, but we should because everybody benefits.”

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