A pivotal link between industry and academia, Teesside University’s £22m National Horizons Centre (NHC) opened last September with two very clear objectives.
One is to drive research into bioprocessing, an often-overlooked subject through which life science discoveries are turned into products, processes and systems for the benefit of mankind and to sustain economic progress. Currently UK’s bioeconomy provides 5.2m jobs and is worth £220bn supporting industries such as biopharmaceuticals, agriculture and food processing.
The National Horizons Centre’s second objective is to plug the ever-yawning skills gap in bioindustries that currently requires between three to five thousand people.
Associate Director for the centre, Dr M. Safwan Akram said: “The NHC is not only improving research in the field of bioprocessing, but also trying to ensure that trained manpower is available to manufacture for 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, is an injection which costs $750,000, while the subsequent annual injections cost $350,000.
“In the past 3 years, there have been huge improvements in treatments designed to cure people of these genetic disorders, but the question is at what cost? And what can we do to bring these costs down?” he said. “Haemophilia, a blood clotting disorder is another example. Here, probably just one injection is needed, but at a cost of £2.1m. Imagine if an NHS trust attempts to treat a handful of haemophiliac patients in a quarter, it could go under at that high cost.”
It was not long ago, 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 challenging scenario, something which can rip through the moral fabric of the society.”
Therefore, the academic team at NHC is working on the challenges of the industry, investigating, for example, how to scale-up the production of biological drugs while bringing down the costs and improving accessibility. It is imperative to understand the difference between small molecules and biological drugs. Small molecules can be produced in copious amounts rather easily while biologics tend to have modifications to their structure during the scale up thus warranting stricter control, better purification and high-end analytics accompanying the process. Consequently, we do not see the level of cost savings in biologics, in comparison to small molecules where generic competition can erode 80% off the price from the brand while in biosimilars (generic equivalent for biologics) it is only around 25 to 30%.
The NHC is using its world class facilities for continuing professional development programmes and apprenticeships, while supporting various undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. NHC is also working with the development of Virtual and Augmented Reality tools for training and monitoring of the workforce for tomorrow. “This probably is the next big thing to reality and has indeed come to the forefront after COVID-19 outbreak.”
Dr Akram said: “This is such a compact building with great facilities from genomics, proteomics and imaging tools under one roof. Students can complete most of their projects without going out of the building, I remember during my PhD at Cambridge University, cycling my samples around from Central Cambridge to the South in Addenbrookes Hospital to Cavendish laboratory in the West. This is a dream come true for a biochemistry, molecular biology and bioengineering students”
Purposefully located within a cluster of scientific excellence in Darlington, a stone’s throw from the National Biologics Manufacturing Centre, NHC already has close working relationships with the three local NHS trusts. Safwan said “We are also working with a food company named Quorn, where efficiencies are being sought in their fermentation process. If successful, it might shave off a few pence off their products and your readers can think of Teesside University while munching off their yummy vegan sausages”.
You can reach Dr. Muhammad Safwan Akram at