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Bioprocessing researchers go back to school

30 July 2012

Biopharmaceuticals are medicines made up of relatively large and complex molecules which mimic the structure of compounds found naturally within our bodies. Over one third of drugs currently under development by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are Biopharmaceuticals and the number licensed is forecast to grow at a rate of 20% per year.

However, despite having many advantages over small molecule medicines, biopharmaceuticals require sophisticated manufacturing methods and so they are slow, expensive and complicated to produce. Because the bioprocessing of these molecules is so challenging it is vital that the sector has a supply of well trained new recruits in order to reach its full potential in the UK.

Helping industry meet this challenge is the BBSRC-led Bioprocessing Research Industry Club (BRIC) which in May this year sent 15 early-career scientists back to school. The researchers were taking part in the second BRIC skills development school: an intensive, week-long course which aimed to help develop the skilled researchers that are needed to drive the growth of the bioprocessing industry. The school, which was hosted by the biopharmaceutical company MedImmune in Cambridge, provided researchers with an insight into some of the challenges that the bioprocessing industry faces and showed how, when researchers put their heads together, these problems can be overcome.

BRIC is a partnership between BBSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and a consortium of leading companies. The skills school is part of a portfolio of activities through which BRIC hopes to provide the research and researchers that will help the bioprocessing community to deliver treatments quickly and affordably to patients.

This was the second skills school for BRIC-funded researchers and another is planned for 2013. The schools came about following an evaluation of the first phase of BRIC investment which was published in 2009. In the evaluation an independent review panel concluded that BRIC was an effective and timely scheme. However, the evaluation identified that there was scope to improve the development of postdoctoral researchers' transferable skills and to provide greater training opportunities - thus, the idea for the skills development school was born.

This year, the skills development school was hosted by MedImmune, the global biologics arm of AstraZeneca, which employs around 3000 people globally and 550 people in Cambridge to discover and develop biotherapeutic drugs.

The BRIC skills development school class of 2012. MedImmune
The BRIC skills development school class of 2012. Image: MedImmune

"The 2012 BRIC skills school was a fantastic opportunity for us to participate in the training of the next generation of bioprocessing researchers" said Dr Ray Field, Director of Cell Sciences at MedImmune.

For MedImmune, BRIC and the skills school are a way of drawing on some of the best research and researchers in bioprocessing. In fact, Dr Chris Sellick, a former BRIC-funded researcher, now works for MedImmune. His work involves implementing and developing more powerful and increasingly automated methods to analyse biopharmaceuticals during different phases of research and development including during scale-down and scale-up.

Dr Andy Picken, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Loughborough attended the skills school in May and was similarly positive about the experience. "I found the BRIC skills school to be an intense, thought provoking and diverse experience" he said.

"The expert sessions provided a broad overview of biopharmaceutical development and manufacturing, while complementary sessions on collaboration and teamwork and career choices were insightful. I particularly thought the balance of talks, tours, networking and social events was key to maintaining the intensity without losing interest."

The opportunity for the intermingling of academics and industrialists is an important element of BRIC along with BBSRC's other research industry clubs and the attendees can make useful connections through the skills school that will serve them well in their future career.

Dr Field, who also sits on the Steering Group for BRIC hopes that by working together through BRIC and the skills school everyone wins "I'm sure this will reap dividends both now, in cementing relationships with our current academic collaborations, and in the future, as those young scientists' careers develop. It is rewarding to see the biopharma industry working together so enthusiastically to such a common purpose."

Commenting, Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC Director of Innovation and Skills, said "The clear success of this second BRIC skills school is very gratifying. BRIC was our first Research and Technology Industry club and it has provided excellent opportunities for developing the researchers in this area. Its success demonstrates BBSRC's commitment to developing skills to ensure the growth of the UK bioeconomy."


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