In 1952, a hitherto almost unknown writer of pulp fantasy stories reinvented himself overnight as the most frightening and sophisticated science fiction author of his age.
At a time when DNA had still not been discovered, John Wyndham wrote The Day of The Triffids, a nightmare tale where, after an epidemic of global blindness, our place at the pinnacle of evolution is summarily and swiftly supplanted by genetically engineered carnivorous plants.
Less than a decade later Wyndham revisited the theme with his book Trouble with Lichen.
Here, though, the threat was not from a gene-engineered adversary but rather a gene engineered benefit — the Antigerone — a drug that confers a significantly enhanced (300 years plus) lifespan on its users.
Trouble with Lichen remains one of Wyndham's lesser known books but to me it is one of the most thought provoking. The primary issue he highlighted was not so much the discovery of the wonder drug itself but how news of it would be managed.
Today, nobody would bat an eyelid at the discovery of a life extending drug — except perhaps one that is so universal in its effects and so easy to take. After all, it is advances in medical science in all areas that results in the aggregate prolongation of life.
An entire industry has grown up around the need to communicate information about new medicines and techniques and Oxford is at its epicentre. Indeed, in January this year the Government invested £7m in the Oxford Biosciences Hub based at Milton Park.
Why is Oxford a centre for such an esoteric industry? Dr Chris Winchester, a senior executive at Tubney-based Oxford PharmaGenesis, said: “It is the combination of biomedical excellence coupled with a sophisticated publishing industry. Oxford has a long history in both.”
Oxford PharmaGenesis has deep roots in the area. Its founder, Dr Graham Shelton, worked with a forerunner firm in the 1980s called The Medicines Group.
In 1998 he set up Oxford PharmaGenesis and the company has not looked back. Today it employs 120 staff, has offices in four countries including Switzerland and the United States and a turnover of £12m.
Because of the historical association with biosciences and publishing and the fact the city was a locus for companies such as Oxford PharmaGenesis to develop, many others such as Caudex Medical, Darwin Healthcare Communications and Watermeadow Medical Communicationsare also based here.
Dr Peter Llewellyn runs the Oxford-based MedComms Networking Community.
He explained: “We are an informal community of the various companies that have grown up in the area.
“It’s a fact of economic life that people leave companies and set up on their own and that is the reason why Oxford is such a nucleus of MedComms excellence.”
But there is another factor, according to Dr Winchester.
He said: “The key to medical publishing excellence is the quality of our writers. Most are recruited at post-graduate level from the university and all are supremely talented.
“I often think these people should be at the coal face of science, doing fundamental research with genetics and cancer research but the harsh fact is that there are not enough jobs and funding for them. So we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent.”
Mr Llewellyn added: “And of course the money is good. Entry level salaries are not brilliant but after a couple of years in an agency and having developed as network of contacts the world is your oyster. Many medcomms writers set up as one-man bands and they can make very good money indeed.”
As the medcomms market place develops the distribution of companies increases.
There has historically been another, smaller nexus of companies around the Cheshire region but this is largely the result of the attraction of a huge AstraZeneca site at Alderley Park.
That site is closing and with the continuing uncertainty about the AstraZeneca buyout by American Pharma giant Pfizer, the future for the Cheshire medcomms industry looks less secure than that based around Oxford.
But Dr Andy Sheridan, communications director at Oxford PharmaGenesis, points out that the international pharma industry now refers to the region between London, Oxford and Cambridge as the ‘Golden Triangle’ for medcomms. It is clear there is a bright future for the industry.
Mr Llewellyn regards a large part of his role as bringing talented bioscience students into the industry. He runs regular workshops for new recruits and organises the publishing of a careers guid for aspiring medcomms writers.
Dr Winchester, Dr Sheridan and five other senior managers at Oxford PharmaGenesis bought the company last year from
Mr Shelton. There is no question of moving or selling out however.
“Our roots are in Oxford and that is where we intend to stay,” he said.
In Trouble with Lichen Diana Brackley, the heroine who discovers the wonder drug Antigerone, received her degree from Oxford. In the novel she then devotes her life to the difficult business of making it available for all by subtly communicating its benefits to the wider world.
Whoever said truth is stranger than fiction?