Scotland has a reputation as a world leader in the life sciences sector, but recent job losses and the withdrawal of a number of pharmaceutical companies has put the industry’s future under the microscope. Special report by Deputy Business Editor Mark Latham.

High-profile breakthroughs such as the cloning of Dolly the sheep have given Scotland a worldwide reputation for research in the life sciences sector.

But the loss of 60 jobs at a plant in Stirling owned by the previously much-touted flagship foreign investor, Alere, suggests that hard questions are required to separate the hype from reality.

Strength in life sciences has given Scotland a marketing-friendly intellectual glamour that recalls the country's great scientific achievements of the 19th century. But behind the glossy marketing images of white coats and microscopes, has the life science sector managed to turn academic excellence in the country's universities into a sustainable, growing source of real wealth that Scotland can bank on in future?

Alongside energy, the creative industries, food and drink, tourism and financial services, in 2007 the sector was designated by the Scottish Government as one of the six key sectors of the national economy that would deliver growth in the years to come.

It has also has been set an ambitious target of doubling in size by the end of the decade. That means increasing turnover to £6.2 billion and gross value added (GVA) to £3bn by 2020. Despite the withdrawal of some pharmaceutical multinationals from Scotland in the recession of the last six years, the sector's industry association, the Scottish Lifesciences Association (SLA), claims these targets should be comfortably achieved. And although the life sciences sector has seen its ups and downs over the last decade or so, the closure of Alere Technologies Ltd included, SLA chief executive Scott Johnstone is bullish about the sector's future, saying that the decline of big pharma has been compensated for by the steady growth of the medical technology sector in recent years.

Johnstone points to the fact that, although a number of pharmaceutical multinationals pulled out of Scotland during the recession, the number of jobs lost have been compensated for by new jobs in companies making diagnostic or therapeutic medical devices.

According to figures from Scottish Enterprise, in 2011 (the most recent year for which official data is available) there were 640 life sciences companies in Scotland employing 33,000 people. If industry-dependent jobs in companies such as legal firms and accountants specialising in life sciences work are stripped out, the total number of employees in 2011 was 17,300 - a 18.1% rise of 2600 on 2010.

This statistic is remarkable as, of the six key high-growth industries of the Government's economic strategy, life sciences was the only one to enjoy double-digit employment growth between 2010 and 2011, albeit from a small base.

But using official data to monitor the performance of the Scottish life sciences sector is fraught with difficulty, cautions economist Professor Brian Ashcroft of Strathclyde University. Figures for GDP and manufacturing exports are collected and published on a quarterly basis by the Government but this is not true of the life sciences sector, where figures are produced on a yearly basis.

"We don't really have good data for life sciences, it is not collected regularly and it is not disaggregated," said Ashcroft, "so it is hard to know whether the sector is improving its export performance. It seems to me that, if we want to monitor this sector, we would need to have better data."

But Johnstone says that, irrespective of which measure is used, employment levels in the sector are around the same level as prior to the economic crash of 2008. He also points out that although the number of people employed in life sciences is small compared with the other five key sectors (food and drink 117,700, financial services 207,500, energy - including renewables - 64,800, tourism 185,900 and creative industries 64,100) most jobs in life sciences are well paid with average salaries in some companies £58,000 compared with a Scottish average of £26,500.

Johnstone also highlights the fact that turnover in the sector increased between 1998 and 2011 from £1.8bn to £3.1bn, which amounts to an average annual growth rate of 6%.

Much of this growth stems from investment in research and development by Scottish companies which, in 2011, amounted to £477 million, up 46% from 2010. However, during the same period, GVA in the pharmaceuticals sector declined 14% to £362m.

Other figures from the Office for National Statistics also point to the healthy state of the sector - a 9% rise to £960m in GVA between 2010 and 2011 means that the sector is now bigger in economic terms than before the start of the recession.

The sector contributes substantially to Scottish exports, Johnstone says, as most life sciences sell their products globally. Investment is growing, with more than 20 of the SLA's 130 member companies raising equity since late 2012.

This includes an investment of £35m this year into Nucana BioMedical, the largest-ever single private investment in a life sciences company in Scotland.

"This showed that a Scottish-based company can raise substantial funds from international investors in a key sector of the Scottish economy," Johnstone said.

SLA policy director John A Brown, a former adviser to the Scottish Government, believes that a recently set up partnership scheme with NHS Scotland will help to deliver growth. The scheme aims to encourage collaboration between medical technology companies and the NHS.

Officially known as the Health Innovation Partnership, it provides a forum for clinicians to describe their needs to companies which respond by making tailor-made products. It has so far seen 40 Scottish life sciences companies working with the NHS to develop and sell products in their home market. "It is unique in the world," Brown said. "There is nothing like this partnership anywhere else and it is greatly valued by the companies in it."

A recent example cited by Brown is the Glasgow start-up company Clear Surgical which has developed surgical retractors equipped with LEDs. These, for the first time, allow surgeons to perform operations without having any area of the operated area falling under shadow. The illuminated retractors were developed after surgeons identified the need for such a product.

Brown claims that as an increasing number of health tests are carried out in primary care clinics, this will create opportunities for life sciences companies to develop cost-effective testing and diagnostic kits.

Another growing field providing opportunities for life sciences firms is digital medicine, which enables the remote monitoring of the health of patients by means of sensors, heart monitors or other implanted devices that send data, sometimes via smartphones, to health professionals to help them spot problems before they occur.

Brown admits that commercialising academic breakthroughs in the field of stem-cell research has been a challenge, but that has been true of the sector globally, not just in Scotland. Stem-cell technology is still at an embryonic stage but important research is taking place that will hopefully lead to commercially successful products being produced in the long-term as well as cures for chronic debilitating diseases.

An example of such ground-breaking work is a trial taking place at a Glasgow hospital by a company called Reneuron where stroke patients are injected with stem cells that aim to repair damaged brain tissue. Other stem-cell research projects under way in Scotland aim to find ways to repair damaged spinal cords and livers.

Meanwhile, groundbreaking research is under way at Heriot-Watt University, in partnership with stem-cell development firm Roslin Cellab and the Durham-based company Reinnervate to develop three-dimensional printing of cells and tissue. This technology could, in the long-term, speed up progress towards creating artificial organs but has a more immediate application generating biopsy-like tissue samples for drug testing. Once refined, the 3D-printed stem-cell derived tissue samples could drastically reduce the cost, and the need for donor tissue and cells in pre-clinical research.

The SLA claims that more than £100m has been invested in regenerative medicine and stem-cell research in Scotland in the last decade and this has, among other things, led to the establishment of the MRC Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine which houses the UK's most advanced pilot-scale embryonic stem-cell clinical manufacturing facility.

Is Brown optimistic? "Demand is going to continue to rise for life science products because the population of the globe is increasing all the time. At the same time there is increasing incidence of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and other conditions so we should be in business for some time to come."

On a trade trip to Japan in 2000, Donald Dewar, Scotland's first First Minister, privately opined that he had become tired of extolling the virtues of Dolly the sheep, the most headline-grabbing element of Scotland's life sciences sales pitch.

It often takes years before major academic breakthroughs are developed into commercially viable products and it may still be many years before the knowledge gained from the first cloning of a mammal from an adult cell in 1996 is monetised.

Meantime, life sciences in Scotland can point to the fact that it was creating new jobs even in the depths of the recent recession and innovative companies in medical technology sector have begun to fill the gap created by the loss of jobs in pharmaceuticals.