On a silk road

On a silk road

The Silk Report is the strategic stepping-stone for Birmingham’s healthcare and life sciences sector of the future. Ian Halstead chatted to its author.

Until the heart-stopping moment when Graham Silk was told that death was only a matter of time, his world revolved around his wife, their youngsters and his beloved Baggies. However, since that chilling day in 2001-after he simply popped in to ask his GP about a niggling knee injury-he’s also been a passionate believer in the power of healthcare innovation.

Silk understands better than anyone the compelling logic for scientific advances to be translated ever-more quickly into new drugs, devices, diagnostics and biomarkers-signposts which offer clues to potential diseases and conditions which might impact an individual. “I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), but couldn’t have a transplant because my brother wasn’t a close enough match, and was also told that no drug was available through the NHS which could offer any hope,” he recalls.

“I began searching the internet to learn about potential new drugs and discover which people were pre-eminent in the field of blood cancer. I discovered there was a supposed ‘wonder drug’ called Glivec, but it was very new and even the clinical trials were all taking place in the United States. I kept on searching, and discovered that someone called Charlie Craddock worked at Hammersmith Hospital in London. He had a great reputation, so I rang them to talk to him. I was like a drowning man clutching at straws.

“I was told he’d moved, and my heart sank. He could have gone anywhere in the world, of course, and I could see from his CV that he’d previously been based in Seattle. Then I was told he’d moved to take up a new post in Birmingham, and here was I was sitting in Halesowen.”

Serendipity at its absolute finest … and his discovery soon led him to meet Craddock, just settling into his new job at Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust. “He was raising money to fund the recruitment of a research nurse, and six months after I’d been diagnosed, he told me that he’d got three places on a clinical trial for this new drug. Two had been taken, but I could have the last one,” recalls Silk.

”Around 40 people in the UK, out of 130,000 who had blood cancer, eventually received this revolutionary new treatment, which is now one of the most commonly-used drugs for CML. Then it was dubbed the ‘golden bullet’ drug, and became the first example of what we now know as personalised medicine.”

Three years on, and having been told his illness was in remission, Silk co-founded Cure Leukaemia with Craddock, and remains a passionate advocate both for its work, and the research nurses who are funded by the charity and now operate in hospitals across the West Midlands. “At the very earliest stage, after the research behind a potential new drug has been peer-reviewed, the work of these nurses is absolutely crucial. A drug development programme which used to take seven years now takes only three, so this new approach was very popular with the pharma companies,” says Silk.

Allied to his background in finance and investment, his experiences made him the ideal choice when Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP needed someone to chair its Life Sciences Commission in 2015, to create a ‘road map’ for how the area’s life sciences sector could develop to benefit patients, the wider community and the economy.

The idea was to research and make a case which could be put with credibility to the city council, the LEP’s partners, government, big pharma and also potential providers of finance from the venture capital and private equity communities.

“The LEP’s board wanted to see how private sector investment could be maximised, on current projects - such as the Institute of Translational Medicine (ITM) on the Queen Elizabeth hospital site, and the Life Sciences Campus which is being developed on derelict industrial land nor far away in Selly Oak-and for the future,” says Silk. “At the same time, it was also important to make a compelling argument to the government about opportunities for us to transform the pace at which patients benefit from healthcare advances.”

Life Sciences Minister George Freeman had known Silk since before his front-bench appointment, and referred to him (anonymously) in his maiden Commons speech. He was clearly impressed by the depth of research and analysis which underpinned the tightly-argued 44-page report, providing a supportive foreword, and adding “I look forward to working with you on the next steps ...”.

The Silk Report concluded by highlighting what its author considered the biggest threat to the region’s ability to establish a world-class life sciences sector-the potential failure to immediately identify the required funding.

It was timely therefore that, as the analysis was being digested by the LEP, the council and many others, a new council leader was elected in Birmingham, and one eager to consider new economic solutions. “I met John Clancy recently, and was very impressed by his ideas for novel funding streams,” admits Silk. “The idea of ‘Brummie Bonds’ as a vehicle to drive investment, and that regional local authority pension funds might also be used, are both very interesting.

“I know George Freeman believes the politics should be taken out of health, and it was noticeable at the BQ Live Debate that he paid tribute to the work done by Andy Burnham, so I think Clancy’s approach will chime with him.

“Greater Birmingham has a diverse and established population of 5.6m, and that’s going to be another tremendous asset as we look to strengthen the scale of the health economy in this area.

“It’s not just about research and data driving medical advances, and creating benefits which accrue to patients though, it’s also about creating wealth and employment. There are many different strands to the regional economy, but there is no doubt that this sector can be a real driving force.

“Charlie [Craddock] has said that Birmingham can become a test-bed for the world, for drugs, diagnostics and devices, and I am sure that is right. The NHS is already learning from what is happening here, but there’s still a lot more it can learn.

“Charlie and his team, and the model they have evolved, have so far leveraged an incredible £200m of drugs for free, and now the ITM is up and running, it will be able to leverage much more into other health sectors.

“The use of digital technology is at the heart of everything which is happening, and we can create an amazing economic boom, not just in the West Midlands, but for the UK, and we can do so using models which are affordable and sustainable.

“George Freeman rates Birmingham as one of the four leading global centres for translational medicine, and now we have to take these opportunities and magnify them for the benefit of patients, and for everyone in the wider West Midlands economy.”