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Bioprocessing: the next generation

Bioprocessing: the next generation - 28 January 2014. BBSRC

Third skills development school brings early career researchers closer to industry.

There is no doubting the importance to bioprocessing technology to modern pharmacology: over one third of drugs currently under development are biopharmaceuticals in an estimated market worth more than $100Bn, expected to surpass $160Bn by 2015 (see ref 1).

Bioprocessing skills are very important to industry and academia. Image: Eden Biodesign
Bioprocessing skills are very important to industry and academia. Image: Eden Biodesign

Biopharmaceuticals differ from conventional drugs because they look to replicate real products of biological cells, say antibodies from the immune system – unlike drugs which tend to target cell receptors to stimulate the production of antibodies, for example.

It's therefore vitally important to the UK bioeconomy there is a constant supply of active and adequately trained professionals to realise the potential to save lives and improve quality of life.

This is why the Bioprocessing Research Industry Club (BRIC), a partnership between BBSRC, EPSRC and a consortium of leading companies, has been running a skills development school for the past three years. In 2013 it was hosted by Eden Biodesign, a biopharmaceutical development organisation based in Liverpool and part of Actavis plc.

The skills school is for early-career researchers and aims to develop the skills needed for the manufacture of complex biopharmaceuticals, and is an important part of BRIC's wider support for innovative bioprocessing-related research.

Dr Brendan Fish, Chair of BRIC and Director of NPI & PT Manufacturing at GSK, says big challenges remain in the bioprocessing industry and having a skilled workforce with strong comprehension of the underpinning science is key. "Scientists and technologists familiar with proteins and their host cell producers, bioprocess development and analytical methods for bioprocessing are highly sought after and highly employable in the industry."

Skills school attendees took part in a variety of tasks and challenges. Image: BBSRC
Skills school attendees took part in a variety of tasks and challenges. Image: BBSRC

He says that because the skills school is industry led, it bridges the experience gap for the researchers between pure academic research and commercial translation. "Ultimately we are in the industry to bring benefit to patients, and the skills school shows how this is done in a commercial environment. In this way the school is a tremendous opportunity for the BRIC researchers to experience and develop industry relevant skills and a commercial awareness that only goes to strengthen their sector employability."

Manufacturing the future

Industry analysts see a big future in biopharmaceuticals. This is because even when the drugs do work they also set off a cascade of other chemical reactions by acting on multiple targets (see ref 2 and ref 3). These can result in serious side effects, and only one of which might produce the therapeutic effect.

So why not cut out the middle man – in this case drugs – and add the desired biological molecules straight into the body? The pharmaceutical industry has been pursuing this approach of making immune system products in the lab for more than two decades, and new cancer therapies based on human antibodies such as Avastin and Herceptin are two examples of this more targeted approach(see ref 4).

The difficulty is that the bioprocessing techniques needed to make these larger molecules are more expensive, time-consuming and difficult than for conventional drugs that tend to be smaller, simpler compounds.

To develop the skills needed in the burgeoning biopharma industry, 2013's five-day skills school event was held at Eden Biodesign and took the 15 students from Eden's base-camp on site tours including AstraZeneca Operations – Supply Biologics and Eli Lilly. Activities ranged from industry panel Q&As to masterclasses with industry leaders covering bioprocessing areas from drug discovery and design to validation and clinical trials. The week also included a Dragon's Den-style business plan competition, where teams pitched commercial ideas to a panel of experienced industry experts.

Not all work: social elements were included to give everyone a lift. Image: BBSRC
Not all work: social elements were included to give everyone a lift. Image: BBSRC

Eden Biodesign's CEO Dr Crawford Brown says the company wants to provide future bioprocessing researchers with a strong, sound knowledge and background of biopharmaceutical design, development and delivery to patients. "Skills school in 2013 offered an incredible amount of information to broaden the postdoctoral researchers with knowledge and skills to equip them for the future whether in industry or academia."

"It also allowed us to further cement our relationship with other BRIC industrial and academic members showcasing Liverpool as the largest cluster for biomanufacturing in the UK."

Click on attendees Katherine Hollywood, Stephen Jaffe, and Dr Ioscani Jiménez del Val to see how their experiences fared over the event. You can also read more from host Eden Biodesign's CEO Dr Crawford Brown.

Stephen Jaffe, University of Sheffield
Stephen Jaffe, University of Sheffield

Stephen Jaffe, University of Sheffield

"I find synthetic biology to be an incredibly interesting field, with the renewable energy and biopharmaceutical industries poised to benefit from hugely. The government is investing heavily in the synthetic biology field as one of its 'eight great technologies (see ref 5) and I feel like the UK is in a position to do great work and help lead the world in making these technologies industrially relevant.

Schemes such as BRIC are doing an exceptional job in helping strengthen ties between the two sides [academia and industry] and allowing for more open channels of communication. In academia, we have a very strong focus on publications whereas the skills school allowed bench scientists to find out what industry truly values.

Over the course of the week, we covered a vast range of topics across the spectrum of industrial drug production from the importance of proper project management all the way to large-scale downstream processing and the issues faced that upstream scientists, such as myself, may not have otherwise considered.

As a person who's new to this field, I found it a great kickstarter to help me understand the mindset required for industry. It provided me with ideas for my research that I hope to be able to bring to the upcoming BRIC conferences. I aim to be able to produce research that's of interest to industry so I'm able to work even more closely with companies that may be able to put things into practice.

As part of our week, we were told that we were going to have the opportunity to pitch a 20-minute new drug proposal to industry leaders. We had the task of trying to get a new beta thalassemia biologic-type therapy to the European market as quickly as possible.

I felt the project worked really well because we had a great mix of people including an industry representative to help us start off. Although none of us had any real industry or market experience, the skills and knowledge we gained throughout the week helped us to pull everything together into a (relatively) coherent business proposal. Not only was this a great opportunity to demonstrate our knowledge, I also felt it really helped cement everything we'd learned throughout the week by giving us a real world example to apply it to.

Dr Katherine Hollywood, University of Manchester
Dr Katherine Hollywood

Dr Katherine Hollywood, University of Manchester

"My learning expectations at the beginning of the week were to gain a greater understanding of how industry differs to academia in terms of working style, working environment and career progression.

In terms of my work it was important for me to begin to understand my current research project from an industry prospective and thus allow me to evaluate the work plan as necessary.

We had a number of masterclass and workshop sessions, which detailed every aspect of the development and manufacture of biopharmaceuticals including regulatory considerations, clinical trials and analytics. We also had site visits where we had the opportunity to look around the development and production areas and gain an understanding of the working environments; at Eli Lilly we got a feel for the immense scale of manufacture.

The business plan competition group work was initially a daunting task, we were asked to provide a strategy for the product development and launch of a novel protein therapeutic, taking into consideration our status as a relatively unknown start-up company with minimal budget and a need to act quickly.

The winning team of the business plan competition. Image: BBSRC
The winning team of the business plan competition. Image: BBSRC

Our group consisted of five members with a range of academic backgrounds and expertise but throughout the week we worked well as team using the skills we had learnt from the project management workshop and understanding our different personality traits and working styles we had learnt about through our Myers-Briggs personality type indicators.

Our final business plan was pitched to a panel of experts on the final day of the skills school. We successfully defended our proposal as a team and gained useful feedback from the panel. It was amazing how many different factors we took into consideration for our final pitch which we previously wouldn't have understood the relevance of in an industrial environment.

The BRIC Skills Development School was an intensive yet extremely rewarding experience. It gave me a much greater understanding of the bioprocessing industry. It was also a remarkable networking opportunity; it isn't often as an early career researcher that you get the chance at dinner to sit between a CEO and VP and opposite someone with an OBE.

Finally, Eden Biodesign were wonderful friendly hosts who put together a great timetable of both work and social events."

Dr Ioscani Jiménez del Val, Imperial College
Dr Ioscani Jiménez del Val, Imperial College

Dr Ioscani Jiménez del Val, Imperial College

"I am interested in pursuing a career in academic research oriented towards pharmaceutical bioprocessing. In this context, the BRIC skills school was great at gaining insight into the current and future challenges in the field in an industrial context. The opportunity to interact with people from these companies was excellent in the above sense.

I was also keen on improving my team-building skills. The activities aimed towards this at the skills school were very useful, especially to gain further understanding on project management; it is almost needless to mention that the skills acquired will be used for future interaction with collaborators and students.

What I've mentioned above will be extremely useful towards my future career plans, as I believe I've gained knowledge on which problems the biopharma industry is facing and could help me propose research projects that are relevant to the current industrial environment."

Dr Crawford Brown, CEO Eden Biodesign
Dr Crawford Brown, Eden Biodesign

Dr Crawford Brown, CEO Eden Biodesign

Eden Biodesign has been supporting BRIC and actively involved for the past eight or so years, and we regularly host visits and tours of our facilities for the BRIC community to promote biopharmaceutical development and manufacturing.

Eden Biodesign hosted the event as it was an excellent way of bringing together industry and academia to work in collaboration to promote the UK bioprocessing community. We wanted to showcase some of the opportunities within the biopharmaceutical industry; in particular at Eden Biodesign's well-equipped state-of-the-art laboratories and the opportunity to work with innovative cutting edge technologies.

We also took advantage of Eden's location within the North West of England and reached out to other local biopharmaceutical companies to add value to the skills school programme. We worked with Eli Lilly & AstraZeneca Operations (Supply Biologics) to bring to life the differences between small-scale production, right through to large scale manufacturing facilities through site visits.

The key area is that drug development is a team sport and as such we wanted to improve the development of postdoctoral researchers' transferable skills and provide greater training opportunities. We did this during the BRIC Skills School via ensuring the students are aware of how they function as a member of a team and looking at their personality types (through the Myers-Briggs test).

Skills school attendees were based at Eden Biodesign. Image: Eden Biodesign
Skills school attendees were based at Eden Biodesign. Image: Eden Biodesign

The postdoctoral researchers also got the opportunity to talk to Eden's staff about their own careers and what skills industry are looking for, ensuring students were aware of what it takes to bring new medicines to a global market place. The School was also an opportunity for some of our staff to continue to foster cross-functional working in a project team to make the school happen.

References

  1. Avitide: Biopharmaceutical purification overview
  2. PLOS ONE: Multi-target drugs: the trend of drug research and development 
  3. Nature: Drugs, their targets and the nature and number of drug targets
  4. PubMed: Validation of an automated method for compounding monoclonal antibody patient doses: case studies of Avastin (bevacizumab), Remicade (infliximab) and Herceptin (trastuzumab)
  5. HM Gov: Synthetic biology (PDF)