BLOG: Developing a Skill Base for the Future

"Throughout my career in the biotech industry I have been fortunate to work on a wide range of cutting edge projects to produce material for first in man studies, whether it be protein fragments, antibody conjugates, DNA, viral, whole cell bacterial vaccines as well as more “conventional” protein or antibody therapies. Throughout these projects , it has always been very apparent to me that the key factor as to why projects might succeed or fail is the people involved at all levels within the project. Whilst money and facilities clearly have an impact, it is the people and their skills and the approaches they bring with them that to me has been the determining factor of success or failure.

When I first entered the industry, nearly 30 years ago, there was very little in the way of platform processes and there was an expectation that all processes would be product specific; this created a need to continually innovate and develop. Whilst this was not desperately cost effective or quick, it was a tremendous opportunity to learn and develop one’s knowledge of biotech based processes and manufacturing strategies. It was also a time when industry seemed to be able to attract the very best scientist into process development and manufacturing and for me it was very privileged to work within a group at ICI now Astra Zeneca in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I did; I benefited enormously from the experience.

However, over the last decade or so is it clear that many companies have focused much of their development activities within the very narrow field of monoclonal antibodies, to a point where we have developed a generation of scientist who have very high levels of specialist knowledge of one particular type of product but virtually no experience beyond this. This trend is also apparent in academia where many of the projects I see all too often seem to focus solely on antibody based processes. Whist there is clearly still a need to further develop such processes I question if this narrow perspective really addresses the future needs of the industry from a technical or skills requirement.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs I feel we are now seeing significant changes in the types of products that are now progressing to the clinic, not only are we seeing increased clinical success in areas such as cell and gene therapy but we are also seeing an increased number of novel therapeutic protein products and vaccines. For these types of products to reach the clinic and market place there are, and will be, many technical hurdles that will have to be overcome. These hurdles will not be addressed by money alone, it will also require a huge technical effort and we need to develop the skill base within the industry to enable these hurdles to be overcome.

However, in the UK as in many western countries there has been an on-going challenge to attract students to study science at University and to follow careers in science and more specifically into the area of process development, analytics and manufacturing. To me, the development of people with the required skill base will be critical to the success of the industry in the coming years. This issue has to be addressed first and foremost by people within the industry and is something which we all have a role in to help make this possible whether it be through internal development programmes or through working with schools and universities to increase awareness of the biotech industry and the opportunities within it, and to encourage and support students who choose their career paths in this field. If not the consequences for the industry could be widespread and our capacity to deliver the tremendous innovations coming from research to patients severely impacted."

Pharma IQ: Making Tomorrow's Medicines