Throughout 2020, the life sciences sector has been in the limelight. In the effort to overcome COVID-19, the sector has put into action an unprecedented global application of expertise. The deployment of great minds, public and private investment and advanced research, development, testing and manufacturing resources has seen one of the world’s most advanced, complex and safety conscious sectors moving at a pace that would be unheard of just several years ago.

The same sector that has delivered at pace to tackle COVID-19 will continue to do so for other challenges and difficulties in healthcare, like cardiovascular medicine and repairing the nervous system. The approaches that have helped to respond to COVID-19 apply just as well to other complex life sciences challenges.

As with potential COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, many of the most promising and impactful means of addressing other major challenges in healthcare are likely to emerge from leading research-intensive universities. As with COVID-19, that’s because those challenges require active ecosystems that nurture interdisciplinary, innovative solutions.

Universities like (UCL) are ideally situated to foster those ecosystems for major health challenges. They do this by combining world-leading research, real-world health partnerships, entrepreneurial expertise, funding and specialist support.

The research environment and community at UCL is regularly recognised as one of the world’s best for multidisciplinary research. That research environment also benefits from a range of partnerships with hospitals and health institutes that are focused on delivering patient care in the heart of a busy, global city, including Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.

For some researchers, that enables them to split their time between the clinic and their research, helping to inspire new ideas and new innovations, and put technology into action.

Researchers with innovative ideas can tap into a supportive funding environment that helps them to explore the commercial potential of their innovation, and the impact it could potentially make at scale. At UCL, for example, multiple routes exist for funding early stage innovation, such as the UCL Technology Fund and Apollo Therapeutics, a fund dedicated to supporting the translation of new therapies into impactful products.

Dr Anne Lane, CEO of UCL Business (UCLB) the commercialisation company at UCL, sees a connection between the skillsets and approaches that delivered rapid innovation in 2020 to tackle COVID-19, and the ability to tackle other global challenges:

“One of the reasons that it was possible to deliver COVID-19 interventions like the UCL-Ventura breathing aid so rapidly was because of the ability to combine the talent of UCL’s researchers with a wider ecosystem that helps support proof of concept early stage innovation.

“Researchers can use insight from their own experiences with patients to put their research into action and begin making a real impact, and then seek funding for its development into a commercial solution. It also enables innovation to be trialled and improved more quickly.

“The same certainly goes for other therapeutic priorities too, including some of the universal and incredibly complex health challenges like neurodegenerative diseases and cardiovascular medicine.

What we add at UCLB is the experience to help researchers understand their innovation and IP, to protect it and to identify the right routes to take in order to make the biggest possible impact.”

Echopoint is a UCLB spinout that is developing new technologies to address unmet needs in the precision diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease. It utilises breakthrough fibre optic technologies, demonstrating how innovative researchers can take technologies originally developed for one sector – in this case, telecommunications – and use it to tackle medical challenges too.

The scale of the market for Echopoint’s technology is enormous. WHO identifies cardiovascular diseases as the number one cause of deaths globally, with around 17.9 million lives lost each year.

Glialign, another UCLB spinout, is developing a pioneering ‘off-the-shelf’ nerve replacement to help repair damaged nervous systems.

Nerves connect the body’s muscles, organs and spinal cord to provide sensation and movement. When nerves are cut, if they do not sufficiently regenerate to close the gap where they were cut, it can result in a poorer recovery that can result in muscle loss, control and feeling, with the potential for severe pain and lifelong pain.

Glialign’s EngNT solution helps regenerating nerves to bridge those gaps by providing columns of living growth guides, using therapeutic cells and a natural gel material.

While tackling very different therapeutic areas, Glialign and Echopoint have both been supported by UCL’s ecosystem to progress from research to early stage ventures with the ability to make a big impact on the lives of patients.

Dr Anne Lane sees this type of ecosystem, as crucial to generating impactful life sciences innovation:

“The importance of stimulating multidisciplinary research environments and thriving commercialisation ecosystems cannot be understated. It’s been incredibly important for spinouts like Echopoint and Glialign, who are tackling some of the most pressing challenges in health, but also across UCLB’s portfolio.

“We were all proud at UCLB to celebrate our fourth NASDAQ listed spinout this year, all in the field of gene therapies.

“Something they each have in common is that key team members are innovative, problem solving researchers working in a world-leading university closely connected with hospitals that are delivering patient care, embedded in ecosystems that help to support, fund and drive forward great innovation.

“The ingenuity, invention and resilience that this period has demanded of all of us working in this sector will see further invention, ingenuity and then investment in new approaches to tackling other global health challenges too.”