More than £6M of funding has been awarded to enhance the development of biopharmaceuticals.
In total £6.5M will fund 12 projects to deliver commercially important results, such as industrial-scale production of antibodies, stem cell preservation at room temperature, biopharmaceutical production using microbes and commercial scale stem cell therapy.
The funding is the second round of awards from Phase 2 of the Bioprocessing Research Industry Club (BRIC), a partnership between the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a consortium of leading companies and HealthTech and Medicines Knowledge Transfer Network.
Bioprocessing is the use of living cells or their components (e.g. enzymes) to manufacture desirable products. The innovative projects will investigate new tools and methods for bioprocessing which will be of particular benefit to the biopharmaceutical sector, where developing new drugs is often slow, expensive and complicated.
The UK biopharmaceutical sector comprises over 250 companies and it is forecast that, by 2016, eight of the top ten 'blockbuster' medicines will be biologics rather than conventional small molecules. The sector is of huge importance to the UK economy.
The new research will take place at nine UK universities. BRIC-funded research addresses bioprocesses at all scales of operation, from the small amounts required for pre-clinical studies through to post-licence mass manufacture.
Priority areas for BRIC research include bioprocessing for protein products and their host cell producers, high-throughput bioprocess development, effective modelling of whole bioprocesses, robust and effective analytics for bioprocessing and bioprocessing research for cellular products.
Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC Director, Innovation and Skills, said: "This latest investment in bioprocessing research through BRIC will further enhance our ability to manufacture the biopharmaceuticals of the future in an efficient and sustainable way. It is a timely prelude to our continuing support for bioprocessing research under our Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy Strategy."
Mr Atti Emecz, EPSRC Director Strategy and Business Relationships, said: "This investment demonstrates the value of the BRIC approach. It draws together bioscience, chemistry and engineering to tackle multidisciplinary challenges and promote internationally excellent research. It also develops the valuable partnerships with industry needed to deliver impact."
Case study: Optimal gel conditions for stem cell preservation
Dr Che Connon will be able to continue his work developing a way of transporting therapeutic stem cells in the post, thanks to a follow-on £735,000 BRIC grant.
Dr Connon, based at the University of Reading, used a previous BRIC grant to show that the technique, which uses a semi-permeable gel to store stem cells at room temperature, was viable.
The method could make it up to 5,000 times cheaper to transport the cells by popping them in the post, instead of needing expensive resources such as liquid nitrogen. The latest funding will look at scaling the technology for industrial use.
Dr Connon said: "Our discovery will allow scientists and surgeons across the globe to have immediate access to therapeutic-quality stem cells but without the costly infrastructure needed by specialist hospitals. Hydrogels provide a simple and effective means of supplying stem cells. This opens up the potential use of cell-based treatments to local or poor communities world-wide."
"The follow-on funding from BRIC will allow us to continue to develop and maintain an international lead in our novel cell storage technology. This timely award will help BRIC industrial partners realise their goals in bringing to market cheap and efficient cell based treatments. We are very excited about this project in particular understanding the science underpinning its success, working with chemical engineers in scaling up the process and collaborating with other BRIC members."
Ten BRIC Studentships have also been funded by BBSRC to help develop the bioprocessing researchers of the future. This brings the total number of BRIC students to 28, each with a collaborating BRIC member company.
BRIC Studentships are collaborative training grants, which follow the Industrial CASE model, giving these top bioprocessing PhD students the chance to experience first-rate research at both an academic institution and within an industrial setting.
The ten studentships will start in the 2013/14 academic year, and last for up to four years, based at five UK universities in partnership with six collaborating companies/organisations.
Students will spend a minimum of three months in a placement with the industrial partner learning skills that they will not necessarily acquire during a standard doctoral programme.
As well as providing high-quality training the scheme develops networking links between students, academia and industry.
The programme complements the EPSRC-funded Doctoral Training Centres at Newcastle and UCL that are relevant to the bioprocessing sector and other EPSRC studentship investments, by supporting training with a biosciences focus.
The funded BRIC research projects are:
- Application of ATR-FTIR imaging to industrial scale production of therapeutic antibodies
Imperial College London
- Use of Attenuated Total Reflectance-Fourier Transform Infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy will allow researchers to investigate the most effective techniques to isolate biopharmaceuticals during production processes.
University of Reading
- Research building on previous BRIC-funded work into using semi-permeable hydrogels to viably transport living biologic material at room temperature.
University College London
- This technique has potential to offer a sophisticated way of sensitively monitoring the purity of harvested proteins in real time.
The University of Manchester
- This work will seek to take "fingerprints" of the metabolism of individual stem cells, to relate each "fingerprint" with the controlling events that determine whether a cell becomes nerve, liver or pancreas cell for example. The information will help identify processes for maintenance of types of cells and to select for cells with a particular functional state.
University of Glasgow
- Developing previous work demonstrating stem cells can be cultured on a nanopatterned surface and retain their regenerative potential, researchers will grow stem cells on 1,000 different patterns to investigate their ability to influence the fate of the stem cells.
- Combining the expertise of biologists and engineers to create scalable systems for the "manufacture" of large numbers of stem cells so the potential of stem cell therapies can be realised.
The University of Sheffield
- Bioinformatics and mathematics will be used to assess how efficiently mammalian cells can be used to harvest proteins manufacture specific proteins. This information will be used to create "design rules" that genetic engineers and cell factory developers can employ to design the most effective genetic code for a given protein product, and predict how much the mammalian cell factory can make.
University of Cambridge
- Building on previous BRIC funding, the research will investigate an efficient way to ensure continuous target protein production in the yeast Pichia pastoris.
The University of Warwick
- Research will investigate a pathway to export target proteins manufactured in bacteria such as E. coli which offers potential for exporting proteins that the other pathways cannot support, and enable refinement of products of particularly high quality.
University College London
- Universal cell lines of olfactory ensheathing cells will be cultured and assessed for regeneration potential.
The University of Sheffield
- Researchers will aim to produce an example therapeutic protein in the bacterium E. coli that can be purified and efficiently modified to improve its biological and physical characteristics and thus overall effectiveness.
The University of Manchester
- The research will develop methods to screen protein formulations for viscosity and other flow properties, using small quantities of protein. This has potential applications in the development of medicines that can be self-injected by patients at home.
Notes to editors
The UK biopharmaceutical sector comprises over 250 companies and it is forecast that, by 2016, eight of the top ten 'blockbuster' medicines will be biologics rather than conventional small molecules: Evaluate Pharma Market Report 2010.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences. Working with UK universities, it invests around £800M a year in world class research and training that has real impact on future economic development and improved quality of life. www.epsrc.ac.uk
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.