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Professor Gillian Leng: Bringing Life Sciences and the NHS Together

Chamber sat down with former Chief Executive of NICE and Commissioner for policy institute Curia’s NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission, Professor Gillian Leng, to discuss the key lessons learnt for life sciences during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Professor Gillian Leng CBE is a leading health academic and the former Chief Executive of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Professor Leng gained her medical degree from the University of Leeds before starting her career in clinical trials and epidemiological research in Edinburgh and working in London as a consultant in public health medicine.

Professor Leng, who spent over 20 years at NICE, oversaw the setting up of NICE’s clinical guidelines programme, the launch of NHS Evidence, and the NICE implementation programme.  In April 2020, during the first Covid-19 lockdown, she succeeded Andrew Dillon as Chief Executive. As well as launching a new five-year strategy, she worked with national and international partners to provide the NHS with advice on new treatments for COVID and the management of associated conditions.

Leng is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, a trustee of the Guidelines International Network and a member of the Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges.

Earlier this year, Professor Leng joined policy institute Curia’s NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission. With her extensive experience of clinical research and health regulations, she provides a vital insight into the Commission’s work. The Commission is chaired by former Minister for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care, Lord O’Shaughnessy, and former Deputy National Medical Director at NHS England, Professor Bewick. Through an implementation-based approach, the Commission will publish an assessment of the key issues facing the NHS and life sciences sector.

In your role as Chief Executive of NICE during the Covid-19 pandemic, what lessons did you learn for the UK life sciences industry?

“The main lesson I learned during the pandemic was the scale and impact of effective collaboration. This was illustrated at a national level by the research community rapidly aligning with the regulators, NHS England and NICE. COVID-related research was initiated at a phenomenal speed and we worked closely with the NHS and the life sciences industry to ensure rapid access to anything shown to be effective against the virus. We launched a series of ‘rapid guidelines’ to contextualise and publicise the findings for front-line staff.”

Why do you think the life science sector was able to align in this way?

“All of this collaboration was catalysed by everyone having an urgent, common goal¾the fight against the COVID-19 virus. As this specific motivation for close working fades away, we must remember how effective these partnerships were and build them into future models of working to capture the same benefits for other important new treatments.”

For regulators specifically, what can they take forward from the pandemic?

“A practical consequence of the effective collaboration was the early sharing of data and information. This speeded up the regulatory pathway and ensured early access to effective new medicines. Data sharing between regulators, with appropriate safeguards, is an important ambition for future ways of working to achieve a more efficient process in routine assessments.”

Final thought

Our interview with Professor Leng, an expert and thought leader in health innovation, gave rich insight into the learnings of the pandemic and the lessons the NHS and life sciences industry can take forward. The alignment of all actors to overcome a public health crisis proves the potential for future improvement, with the sharing of data and information to create synergy being a particular focus.

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