U.K. biopharma deal meant to defy Brexit skeptics has fizzled

The Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster (Courtesy of Diliff [CC BY-SA 2.5])

The United Kingdom government has unveiled its highly anticipated deal with the life sciences sector. As previously leaked, the document (PDF) details planned investments from drug developers including GlaxoSmithKline, although many of the commitments are vague or already known.

GSK is committing £40 million ($53 million) to expand the genome sequencing program it created with Regeneron and UK Biobank earlier this year. In March, GSK and Regeneron put up an “initial investment” to sequence the first 50,000 of a planned 500,000 genomes. The £40 million is the anticipated follow-up investment that will fund sequencing of all participants, an expansion that GSK made sound like a sure thing in March.

The GSK investment, while expected, is a rare example of a new number in the report. Many of the other projects trumpeted in the report are either already well known or vague and of questionable significance for the U.K. life sciences sector. 

Novo Nordisk’s £115 million research center in Oxford falls into the former camp. A collaboration between Johnson & Johnson and the University of Oxford on clinical trial methodologies falls into the latter.

The biggest disconnect between leaked news reports and reality relates to the VC investment and relocation story broken by the Sunday Times and Financial Times over the weekend. Those articles described the investment of up to $1 billion by a U.S. life sciences fund that planned to relocate a “significant” portion of its operations to the U.K.

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No such actions are described in the report. The only news in the same ballpark is that Apple Tree Partners “has signalled its intention to create a biopharmaceutical company in the U.K.” Apple Tree is the VC shop behind biotechs including Gloucester Pharmaceuticals, which Celgene gobbled up in 2009 for $340 million upfront and a similar amount in milestones. 

Apple Tree's involvement in the creation of a U.K. biotech would be a welcome development for the country. But the news and the rest of the report—which retreads ground about how the U.K. will help the industry—aren’t the sort of narrative-shifting events the government needs to reassure businesses about the post-Brexit future of the country.

Given events elsewhere this week, it is questionable whether any sector deal could have captured much of the news agenda. The report was released against a backdrop of deepening strife in the Brexit negotiations and the revelations that the government hasn’t assessed the possible effects of leaving the European Union on any industries.