Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
Maintaining the edge in life sciences


Maintaining the edge in life sciences

In February 1997 the world’s media flocked to the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh to meet a very significant sheep. Dolly was the world’s first cloned mammal. Named after the country and western singer Dolly Parton, she had been born the year before to a surrogate mother.   

In a feat previously thought to be impossible, she was grown from a single mammary cell that contained all the information required to create a whole new sheep. Dolly started her life as a single cell in a test tube, but after six days the Edinburgh-based scientists were able to confirm normal development and her embryo was transferred into a surrogate mother.  

Despite the moral debate that arose in the years that followed, Dolly led a fairly normal life, living with a flock of sheep at the Roslin Institute and having six lambs with a Welsh Mountain sheep named David. She ultimately died, aged seven, in 2003 after developing tumours in her chest. 

But the legacy of Dolly has been felt long since her premature death. Many suggest that the greatest impact has been seen in stem cell advances since Dolly. And stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka has previously said that she motivated him to begin developing stem cells derived from adult cells – an accomplishment that won him a Nobel Prize in 2012. 

Building upon others’ work is a fundamental principle of life sciences and few would dispute Scotland’s contribution to the field in the last few centuries. The nation’s discoveries and innovations have enabled the world to control deadly viruses like Tuberculosis, synthesise insulin and pioneer vital organ transplants. 

Penicillin, developed by Dr Alexander Fleming, is estimated to have saved over 200 million lives since the 1940s. However, the doors it has opened in other areas of medicine are often forgotten by people outside the medical community.  

Professor Christopher Tang, from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University, has said the chemotherapy that is currently used to treat cancer “would not be possible” without penicillin due to the way it immunosuppresses people “without the use of antibiotics”. 

“Not only has penicillin opened the door for treating people with infection, but it’s also paved the way for modern medicine, modern interventional medicine that we benefit from now,” he says.   

Professor Iain McInnes, vice principal and head of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences at the University of Glasgow, says there is clear evidence that Scotland is a “hugely creative country” and one that “punches well above its weight” in the life sciences sector.  

“The reason for that is because we have strong biomedical life sciences universities,” he explains. “The strength of our universities is absolutely the reason for our strength in life sciences. If we didn’t have strong biomedical universities, there would be no life sciences industry in Scotland. 

“Scotland consistently receives a higher portion of the UK research income available per head of population, and we consistently outperform our peers south of the border in winning grants and writing papers per academic head of population. 

“We have a history that is strong and universities that are outstanding which are represented in very impressive and highly prestigious places in the relevant league tables around the world, and that is used to leverage higher grant income. As a result, the outputs are of higher-than-expected quality. It’s a real success story for Scotland.” 
Another recent success story is the latest growth data for the life sciences sector. 

As announced at Scotland’s Life Sciences Dinner and Annual Awards in Glasgow last month, the country is on track to surpass its targeted turnover by 2025. In 2021, turnover in the sector stood at £10.5bn, far surpassing the targeted £8bn by 2025 set out by the Scottish Government in its most recent life sciences strategy, which was published in February 2017. The figure also represents a 190 per cent increase in turnover since 2010. 

One of the key reasons innovation minister Richard Lochhead cites for Scotland being able to surpass the target four years early is the critical work done by the industry in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Lochhead says that it “demonstrates the phenomenal progress being made” in the sector, something that is “testament to the hundreds of companies and thousands of employees who drive one of Europe’s leading life sciences clusters”. 

He adds: “The figures reflect the vital work undertaken across the sector during the pandemic – this not only saved lives but demonstrated Scotland’s capability to lead in the life sciences arena. It is a performance that has positioned us as a global hub for life science innovation and expertise with enormous potential for future growth.” 

The sector is also creating thousands of high-income jobs. As of 2021, there were 33,400 people employed in the life sciences industry, at almost 1,000 sites, with an average wage of £40,600. 

McInnes reflects on the last 40 years of working in the life sciences field and says immunology is “the remarkable discipline” of the period. And it is a field that Scotland has been well served in. 

“We have been fortunate to have outstanding immunologists working in Scotland in our biomedical universities, and that community has been very strong for the last half-century. Scotland’s place in immunology is a proud one,” he says. 

“The most important early experiments were done here in Scotland. Peter Medawar did pioneering transplant experiments for the saddest of reasons during the Second World War with skin transplants. That was one of the very earliest sets of experiments that understood the human immune system has a very strong genetic basis that tissues from one individual may not be accepted by another. He found that you can overcome that and it laid the foundations for kidney and lung transplants.”    

Scotland continues to build on that legacy, with Edinburgh regarded as the best place for innovation in the United Kingdom outside of the Golden Triangle of Greater London, Oxford and Cambridge, and with Glasgow in third place. Chris Dougray, head of development at CBRE Scotland, believes there is a “unique opportunity” for Scotland to take a “leading role in the advancement of health innovation in Europe”. 

The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) to the world has opened a new way of working and interacting with data. Deloitte has described the applications of the emerging technology as being “nowhere more remarkable than in life sciences”. It says that “digital transformation enabled by AI and machine learning is affecting virtually every aspect of the value chain” and is driving a new era of digital health. 

McInnes makes the point that AI, despite only recently being popularly received because of platforms like ChatGPT, has been involved in life sciences for the last ten years. He says its primary use in the sector is its ability to take large volumes of data, assimilate patterns and understand what datasets are telling scientists.  

He tells Holyrood that scientists are using the technology to understand the conversations that cells are having with each other. He uses an example from the University of Glasgow, which in the last few years has invested heavily in spatial biology – the study of detecting genes, their product RNA (a nucleic acid present in all living cells), and the proteins that are made in tissue. 

“We were able to detect that [before AI], but we weren’t able to retain the geographical localisation of all those things very easily. And we certainly couldn’t do that all at once,” he says. 

“Whereas now, we can work out what genes are switched on, what proteins are present, in which cell, all with the intact human biopsy tissue. We used to look at samples from diseased tissues and we would know what genes and proteins were there, so we could reconstruct the conversation we thought was happening. But now we can work out exactly which cells talk to which cells, and we know what neighbourhood they are in. That is a complete game-changer. 

“We are now looking at cancer and starting to really understand what cancer cell is talking to what cancer cell, what immune cell has got into that cancer and find out what it is doing in real-time. And then we can give therapy and see how the conversation changes between cells. This is absolutely extraordinary, and it is utterly dependent on AI and the ability to process huge quantities of data.” 

AI is also beginning to play a role in the veterinary life sciences field in Scotland thanks to the first spin-out company from SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). MI:RNA is developing an AI technology that detects cardiac disease earlier in cats and dogs and offers greater insight into how the illness has and could develop by analysing the communication between cells with the assistance of AI. 

It is hoped that the tool will allow roughly 200 samples to be analysed a day by one lab technician and ultimately will prolong the life of pets by years. 

MI:RNA co-founder and chief technology officer Dr Robert Coultous commends the level of investment coming into Scotland’s life sciences sector.  

“There is a lot of investment into Scotland’s life sciences sector right now, which is crucial for us as a start-up company and Scottish Enterprise has given us great support throughout our development as well,” he says. 

Some of these AI diagnostic tools have already been introduced in trials in a clinical setting in Scotland. NHS Grampian and the University of Aberdeen have trialled a new tool that has been proven to detect abnormalities in breast cancer screenings that would have been missed using current screening procedures.  

Using an AI tool named Mia, which was developed by Kheiron Medical Technologies, 220,000 mammograms were analysed from more than 55,000 people to determine how well it could detect breast cancers. The analysis found that the AI tool was successful at identifying potentially missed cancers, known as interval cancers, which are detected between screening visits. Kherion Medical Technologies claim tools like Mia have the potential to reduce the waiting time for results from 14 days down to three. 

Dr Clarisse de Vries, a radiology imaging researcher at the University of Aberdeen who led the data analysis, explains how the new diagnostic tool is used by clinicians: “Currently, two experts examine each mammogram and decide whether the person should be invited back for additional investigations. If the two experts disagree, a third expert makes the final decision. 

“Similar to a human expert, Mia can examine a screening mammogram and give an opinion as to whether that person should be invited back for additional investigations. Mia has previously been developed and tested on some groups, but until now had not been used on data from the NHS in Scotland.   

“Our finding is a massive step forward in using AI technology in diagnostic medicine – we showed that once tuned to the local environment, AI can be of enormous benefit to clinicians and importantly, people who may be at risk of developing cancer.” 

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Ruaraidh Gilmour - Anas Sarwar set to unveil Scottish Labour’s manifesto.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top