Fourteen months later, after the Covid-19 hiatus, the Government’s recent Budget announcement signals the beginning of a return to the 2019 manifesto. The promises made around ‘levelling up’ are beginning to appear: a theme of the Budget starting the shift in the economic geography of the country.
Many good things are on the horizon for the North of England, including the new Treasury office in Darlington and a UK Infrastructure Bank in Leeds, but what lasting shape will ‘levelling up’ take? At some point the catchall phrase for economic growth, high value jobs, regional regeneration and improved resilience in our northern communities will need to be more clearly defined. That’s where I believe investment in innovation comes in.
My alma mater, the University of Sheffield, has just announced a brand new Gene Therapy Innovation and Manufacturing Centre, part-funded by the Law Family Charitable Foundation, alongside the Medical Research Council, the BBSRC and medical research charity LifeArc. One of three gene therapy hubs (the others based in London and Bristol), this centre represents the start of an innovative biomanufacturing centre for the North, driving economic growth and investment in high quality jobs, and attracting other investors as the region’s reputation for excellent research and innovation grows.
The centre will be housed in a £10m state-of-the-art facility located in the University of Sheffield’s Innovation District. The jobs, regional growth and advancement in research into gene therapy that will come from this centre means this is a defining moment for the University, the city of Sheffield and the North as a whole.
Gene therapy is one of the most exciting and important research avenues in the world today. For around 7,000 incurable diseases, gene therapy is a beacon of hope, a promising treatment option for rare diseases that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
The UK has an outstanding academic base in the field of gene therapies, which has expanded rapidly over the past decade. However the sector experiences a unique problem which has thwarted otherwise promising efforts to find cures to untreatable conditions. Gene therapy involves engineering genes to replace, silence or manipulate the faulty one. This requires manufacturing the ‘viral vectors’ needed to deliver therapeutics into human cells.
There is currently a manufacturing shortage in the UK, which is seriously hindering moving gene therapies into clinical trials, thus obstructing the development of much-needed treatments for incurable diseases.
That manufacturing shortage is exactly what Sheffield’s Gene Therapy Innovation and Manufacturing Centre will help to address. And, by solving such a critical shortage, it will also play a part in helping the wider North of England’s economy to ‘level up’ and inspire generations of people to acquire the skills to create the jobs, businesses and innovations that will make great things happen in the decades to come.
Through the gene therapy centre we can start to address both the economic and the health disparities affecting the nation, and capitalise on the very real scientific expertise that exists outside of the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Why shouldn’t the North of England be the world’s home of gene therapy research?
The UK’s phenomenal success in developing coronavirus vaccines has also shown the people of the UK – and the wider world – what we can achieve when industry and academia come together to solve our most significant problems. Now, through gene therapy, we want the UK to be the first place to cure motor neurone disease, and for ‘Global Britain’ to again take to the world stage with a medical discovery that will change lives.
All of this can be achieved while helping us to ‘level up’ and transform the North, re-energising regional economies and creating high value jobs in world-defining research, cutting edge innovation and manufacturing.
And creating the hope and expectation of the kind of jobs, careers and futures that young local people can aspire to in their own Northern backyard.
Andrew Law is chief executive and chairman of hedge fund Caxton Associates and co-founder of the Law Family Charitable Foundation.
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