A pivotal link between industry and academia, Teesside University’s £22m National Horizons Centre opened last September with two very clear objectives.
One is to drive research into bioprocessing, that oft overlooked mechanism by which life science discoveries are turned into products, processes and systems that benefit humankind and national economies alike.
It is key to industries such as biopharmaceuticals, agriculture and food processing, for starters, with the UK’s bioeconomy as a whole supporting 5.2m jobs and generating £220bn annually.
The current UK market for industrial biotechnology alone is worth £34bn.
The National Horizons Centre’s second objective is to plug the ever-yawning skills gap in bio-industries that currently needs between three and five thousand people to plug it.
Associate Director Dr Safwan Akram said: “The National Horizons Centre is not only improving research in the field of bioprocessing, but also trying to ensure the manpower with the right level of skills is there to deliver what can be very advanced, but also very expensive treatments.”
He cites the example of gene editing, which can be used to side-step sickle cell anaemia and spinal muscular atrophy, the latter a breakthrough made just a few months ago.
The first stage in that treatment – the first injection alone – costs $750,000, while the subsequent annual injections cost $350,000 .
“Suddenly, in the past two or three years, there have been huge improvements in treatments designed to cure people of these genetic disorders,” he said.
“Haemophilia is another. Here, probably just one injection is needed, but at a cost of £2.1m.
“If an NHS trust has a couple of haemophiliac patients, say, it could go under if it attempts to treat people at such high cost.”
Recently, a group of parents protested outside a Manchester hospital, begging for the spinal muscular atrophy treatment for their children.
“I have seen first-hand the difference it makes between there being no treatment and knowing there is a treatment available, but you can’t afford it,” he said. “That is a very different thing.”
The role of the NHC’s formidable team therefore, armed with the state-of-the-art analytical and digital know how that fuels fundamental and applied research into biological systems – in fields such as disease pathway analysis, food technology, the development of medical diagnostic devices and forensic archaeology – is of national importance.
The team “works on the challenges of the industry”, investigating, for example, how to scale-up the production of drugs while bringing down the costs and improving accessibility.
Take the hunt for the solution to Covid 19, Dr Akram said. “Somebody needs to produce the biological molecule in huge amounts, but the path to scale-up is riddled with its own challenges.
“In my lab, I work with monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) that are the drug of choice for most cancers and autoimmune disorders. But there is a small sugary part in the mAbs and when you scale them up, it starts to change.
“Regulatory requirements state you must curtail that change so that by the time the final batch goes to the patient, 95% is of only one type of molecule, so we are going to have to come up with a strategy to curtail the changes in the scaled-up production of any Covid vaccine.”
His team is working on developing low-cost diagnostic tools to capture that change in real time to save the costs associated with additional downstream processing.
Having the people with the skills required – not just at NHC, but in the industry at large – is imperative.
The world class facilities housed within the National Horizons Centre are used for continuing professional development programmes and apprenticeships, as well as a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the disciplines of life and physical science, engineering and forensic sciences.
NHC is also working on the development of Virtual and Augmented Reality tools for training and monitoring the workforce of tomorrow.
Dr. Muhammad Safwan Akram can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.