Innovations in biopharmaceutical manufacturing are coming thick and fast in Ireland as its burgeoning life sciences sector continues to expand.

“In 2003, Ireland had two big biologics plants, but by 2015, that had grown to 15 and two more are in the pipeline. These state-of-the art facilities encourage the development of innovative products, technologies and techniques,” says Matt Moran, Director of Biopharmachem Ireland, the association that represents the biopharma and chemical sectors within business and employer association, Ibec.

 

Cancer-killing antibodies produced in Ireland

 

Innovative pharmaceuticals now being produced in Ireland include MABs – monoclonal antibodies that are used in the cutting-edge field of cancer immunotherapy to trigger the immune system to attack and kill cancer cells.

Other new products include orphan drugs, pharmaceutical agents researched and developed specifically to treat rare medical conditions, called orphan diseases.

 

Less wastage in production methods

 

New methods are also being developed in biopharmaceutical manufacturing. “Companies are now looking at continuous manufacturing, a process more commonly used in petrochemical and polymer plants, but new to pharmaceuticals, where batch manufacture has been standard,” says Moran.

“Continuous manufacturing, using the Quality-by-Design (QbD) approach and process analytical technology (PAT), means the processing system can be measured, monitored and tweaked in real time, making it easier to maintain high levels of quality, with less risk of wastage than in batch manufacturing.”

 

Government invested €10bn in the last decade

 

The Irish government, keen to grow the biopharma sector, which accounted for €56bn in exports in 2017, has invested €10bn in the sector in the last decade.

Part of the funding went towards the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT), a global centre of excellence for training and research in bioprocessing. NIBRT, based on an innovative collaboration between University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University and the Institute of Technology, Sligo, was primarily funded by the Government of Ireland through Ireland’s inward investment promotion agency, IDA Ireland.

About 5,000 people a year receive undergraduate or graduate training or research experience at Dublin-based NIBRT, which is purpose-built to closely replicate a modern bioprocessing plant, including state-of-the-art equipment and research facilities. “It's a kind of flight simulator for biotech,” says Moran, adding that biotech companies from abroad commonly send staff to NIBRT for training.

Science Foundation Ireland, the national foundation for investment in scientific and engineering research has also invested heavily in research, in particular the SFI Strategic Research Clusters (SRCs). These include ten clusters dedicated to life sciences, where industry collaborates with research organisations and universities.

“Collaboration comes easily in a small country where people naturally network among themselves,” says Moran. “It means the life sciences sector is flexible and, when it spots a trend, it can respond fast.”

 

8,400 job openings by 2020

 

The growth of life sciences is fuelling a huge demand for new skills. It is predicted that up to 8,400 job openings will arise in the biopharma sector by 2020, on top of the 28,000+ people employed now.

An additional 5,000 staff are expected to be employed in biologics manufacturing in Ireland over the next five years and another 3,400 job openings will arise due to retirements and people leaving the sector. Of the 5,000-strong increase in biologics manufacturing, it is estimated that around 1,000 positions will be for roles such as facility maintenance, supply chain/logistics, human resources, finance, legal and warehousing. The remaining 4,000 roles will require more specific biopharma science and engineering experience.

Moran says: “People with qualifications and skills in biotech research, development and manufacturing, such as bioprocessing, bioinformatics, biotech operations, bioprocess engineering and associated digital skills will be in demand.”