As part of a suite of measures to support the country's life science sector, the United Kingdom plans to increase researchers' access to medical patient data and funnel £180 million ($280 million) to a new fund designed to help turn basic science into marketable treatments, Prime Minister David Cameron announced today. The moves also include £50 million ($78 million) for a London-based "cell therapy technology and innovation center," and £60 million ($93 million) to develop the secure system that would allow researchers access to anonymized patient data from the National Health Service (NHS).
NHS plans to change its constitution to allow patient data to be open to researchers by default, with an opt-out option for individuals. The ability to take advantage of NHS data will be a boon for research in the United Kingdom, said Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust. The more patients who are involved in research, the greater the public benefit, he said in a statement, adding that a patient once told him, "giving my anonymous data is the most painless thing I can do to help others get better."
Some have raised privacy concerns about the data access plan, which is why the U.K. government will hold a public consultation on the idea before moving ahead, but Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, also applauds the proposal. "Most people believe the info they give their doctor is used to improve health services to all. That's part of the contract within the NHS. Some people would be quite horrified when [they] find you're not able to access that information. If you're suffering with a disorder, I'm not even allowed to look at the database to find that you could be approached about a trial that you might benefit from that," says the former head of the U.K. Medical Research Council. "I'm delighted that he's [Cameron] starting the debate. It's long overdue for us to have that discussion. Maybe society will decide they don't like it. But what you can't have is endless committee after committee after committee for year after year debating the issue and not put it in the public domain."