BioPharma Ambition 2018; Is the Future Bright?

The second instalment of “BioPharma Ambition” was held in Dublin Castle 21st-22nd Feb 2018. Run by the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA), BioPharmaChem Ireland (IBEC) in association with the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT), the event invites international policy leaders, senior industry personnel and renowned research scientists to congregate and discuss the future of Ireland’s biopharmaceutical industry. Ireland is viewed as a global hub for biopharma, with each of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies having a presence here. The industry accounts for >55% of our exports and employs approximately 28,000 people and with “ambition” there could be another 8,000 by 2020 (Silicon Republic). The event, with over 100 companies and universities present, was split over two days with sessions discussing; “Ambition for medical and biopharma innovation”, “The future of genomics and advanced therapeutics”, “Unlocking the collaborative potential of data and clinical research” and “Manufacturing for the future”.  And I might add, it was very easy to spot the academics among the suits, hair and floral shirts is all I’ll say.




The CEO of the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) Ireland, Martin Shanahan; former Supervisory Investigator and Director, Investigations Branch of the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), David L. Chesney and Chief Executive of the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), Dr Lorraine Nolan really set the scene on the first day. Describing the actions regulatory bodies must take to catch up with the technological advances in biomanufacturing, as they continue to strive to remove any “un-reasonable risk” for the patient. This was followed by coffee, and biscuits, some of which had chocolate, no expense spared by the biopharma industry.

Next was my favourite session of the meeting, with talks from research scientists, both industrial and academic. Dr Séan Ennis, CSO and Founder of Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI) along with Dr Steven Elmore, AbbVie, outlined their new study and how they can use the homogeneity of the Irish population as a strong statistical model for predicting rare disease from whole genome sequencing. Dr John Murphy (hard to believe he’s not Irish with a name like that!), Vice President of Rare Disease Research Unit, Pfizer, talked about Pfizer’s gene therapy platforms for treating Rare Diseases. It was refreshing to see someone from industry talk openly about the challenges they face, and limitations of a technology, as opposed to the usual sales pitch style presentation. Prof Colin Hill, Professor of Microbiology, University College Cork, informed us of how we are all “living in a microbial world” sadly however, Colin’s Cork accent did not lend itself to the lyrical stylings of Madonna. He continued, delivering a truly excellent talk outlining his vision, in partnership with Janssen, to utilise recombinant Phage in targeting the gut microbiome as an alternative to antibiotics. The first night ended with a poster session, in which I partook along with former “NICB-ers” Dr Paul Kelly and Dr Colin Clarke. Congratulations to Dr Colin Clarke for winning a poster prize on his work; “Ultra-deep next generation mitochondrial genome sequencing reveals widespread heteroplasmy in Chinese hamster ovary cells” and having the through town with a giant plaque. I’m a co-author on that work, so had to get a plug in.



On the second day, I missed the early morning session, not because it was early morning, I had cells that needed my attention. I did attend the afternoon session, and glad I did so. We were treated to presentations by Brendan O’Callaghan, Chairman of the NIBRT Board, Adjunct Prof to UCD’s School of Chemical Engineering, and Senior Vice-President & Global Head, Biologics Platform, Sanofi, on factories of the future. Graham Symcox, Managing Director, PharmaCentaur AG, talked about “Ireland V2.0”. He highlighted the unique position Ireland holds, being the only country in the world with all the top global biopharma, med tech and IT companies clustered in close proximity. He feels Ireland is uniquely positioned to leverage the potential of collaboration between pharma and IT, through our general “Irish-ness”, an affectionate term for social and emotional intelligence. An inspirational plenary was the highlight of the second day, delivered by Dr Lynn Allen-Hoffmann, Vice President, Regenerative Medicine, Stratatech and Prof at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr Allen-Hoffmann described her “academic epiphany”. Lynn had been culturing skin cells for years and was invited by a surgeon to observe the grafting of a burn victim. Following the 6hr operation she returned to sit through faculty meeting, to hear about SDS-PAGE resolution of phosphorylated blah blah blah and thought “what am I doing here?”. She has since devoted her academic efforts solely in the pursuit of resolving the issue of autograft surgery for burn victims. Her company Stratatech has developed “Stratagraph” a replacement for autografts and is showing promise in clinical trials. This technology means a burn victim will no longer have to have their healthy skin grafted to the burn area.




So, what does all this mean for a soon to be PhD graduate, (touch wood), in Ireland 2018? If seeking a position in biomanufacturing you’re in luck! And if you are the parent of a directionless adolescent, start using subliminal messaging to point them towards STEM subjects. While the Ambition is certainly here in terms of job creation from this industry. Ireland will still be seen for excellence in biomanufacturing and not necessarily innovation in this field, as much of the research and development (R&D) remains domestic for the foreign investors.  I personally feel the ambition should not only be on the quantity of jobs, but also the quality of positions available, marrying R&D with the outstanding manufacturing record already establish. Starting small with the support of top-class research on biopharma by the mammalian cell engineering group here in NICB, NIBRT and other Irish institutes. Excellence in biopharma innovation, I feel, would give Ireland something desirable, and a competitive advantage over other nations. This could help to discourage these companies from leaving for a cheaper manufacturing jurisdiction in the years to come, whilst simultaneously futureproofing us, enabling us to grow the industry ourselves should they move on.