The insider: The biologics boom
There are decent job prospects in biopharmaceuticals, but you'll need to learn your trade and gain work experience. Helen Carmichael gets advice from an industry expert
Bioprocessing involves turning living cells into manufacturing units to yield products that include biological medicines (biologics). It is the fastest growing sector of the pharmaceutical industry, accounting for 10 per cent of total pharmaceutical sales and over one third of drugs in development, according to bioProcess UK, the UK's national bioprocessing knowledge transfer network.
The industry is not immune from the economic downturn, says Richard Dennett, head of consultancy services at Eden Biodesign, a contract biopharmaceutical company. But other factors are also influencing change. 'The sector has recently seen an interesting coalescence of classical chemical-based pharmaceutical companies now incorporating biological-based biopharmaceutical products into their R&D pipelines, predominantly through acquisition and license,' says Dennett.
For the pharmaceutical industry, driving products through to the clinic is more important than ever and many large companies are shedding in-house development and manufacturing capability in favour of outsourcing to contract manufacturers such as Eden Biodesign, which offers development, manufacture, regulatory support, and guidance.
The biopharmaceutical product lifecycle means staff levels have a tendency to fluctuate. Biopharmaceuticals have a high attrition rate and failure of high-resource projects can be dramatic. However, an ongoing shortage of qualified biomanufacturing professionals makes for decent job prospects longer term.
Skills in demand
Complex, labour-intensive, and demanding unique skills and specialist training, biomanufacturing requires employees to work in highly regulated environments and to have a sound understanding of biotechnology. Graduate jobs are in process development (fermentation, purification); analytical development; molecular biology; manufacturing; production; quality control; or formulation and filling.
Paper qualifications will get you an interview, but evidence of practical capability through college studies and projects, long-term industrial undergraduate placements, or previous employment may carry more weight. Good teamwork in a challenging environment is essential, as is practical knowledge of equipment and awareness of quality systems.
Biology and chemistry are core disciplines, along with mathematics, followed by biochemistry or molecular biology. The route into biomanufacturing can be at degree, masters or PhD level. 'Whilst undergraduate degrees in the UK are excellent, many fail to offer industrial content either as placements or as actual taught modules,' says Dennett. Liverpool John Moores University, UK, is one institution offering a well-regarded masters degree in industrial biopharmaceutical technology. Another is the University of Sheffield, UK, which recently introduced an MSc in biological and bioprocess engineering, and accepts both engineering and bioscience graduates.
The UK's northwest is an established biotechnology centre, with specialised incubators, technology facilities and infrastructure. Eden Biodesign operates the National Biomanufacturing Centre in Speke, near Liverpool. Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca and Sanofi-Aventis are also located in the region, along with the UK Biobank.
Elsewhere, the University of Kent is launching a life science laboratory technology and bio-manufacturing foundation degree for 2009, taught at the Kent Science Resource Centre in Sittingbourne, with work experience opportunities at Kent Science Park. In Scotland, Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University offers a bioprocessing MSc. These courses were created in collaboration with industry to provide employees with the necessary skill set. They typically include a year in industry for undergraduate courses or an industry-linked project for MSc students.
Eden Biodesign and major UK-based pharma companies have been working with the UK's Science, Engineering, Manufacturing and Technology Alliance to develop national occupational standards for the biosciences. These will be available for use in the school and college curriculum and will help form the framework for apprenticeships.
'Biopharmaceutical-aligned education is a real bedrock,' Dennett says. 'Like any professional career, you really have to learn your trade and do your time on the bench.' Progression can be to a senior scientist - heading up a scientific team or as a department manager - or into areas such as regulatory compliance, project management, quality assurance or validation.
The rewards of a biopharmaceutical career include diverse projects and the innate complexity of drug and process design, which require considerable ingenuity and teamwork. 'Knowing that you're participating on the world stage in combating disease and unmet medical need is particularly rewarding,' says Dennett.
Helen Carmichael is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Canada