Saturday 3 December 2016

We're right in the driving seat of the biotech boom

Ireland is leading the way in the booming biopharma sector

Dominic Carolan

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Ireland has the potential to become a global centre for the manufacture of biologics medicines
Ireland has the potential to become a global centre for the manufacture of biologics medicines

It is said that biotechnology will do for the 21st century what computers did for the 20th century. Technology based on biology is improving our lives. Living organisms are being used to create antibodies and produce life-saving vaccines.

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Biotech impacts many areas, from industrial processes that use renewable feedstock instead of crude oil and to crops that are able to grow in harsh conditions. The impact of biotechnology on medicines is having a profound effect on the way we treat disease.

So how does this impact on Ireland? It brings a huge opportunity and also a significant challenge.

That opportunity is clear; with the advent of ever increasing biopharma activity, Ireland has the potential to become a global centre for the manufacture of biologics medicines.

Ireland has a strong track record in attracting major pharmaceutical companies to set up operations here. The industry directly employs more than 25,000 people with an estimated 24,000 in associated support industries. In 2014 alone, more than 3,000 new jobs were announced by life sciences companies investing in Ireland.

Recent major bioprocessing announcements made by Bristol-Myers Squibb, Alexion, and Regeneron will result in excess of $1.5bn in new facilities, hundreds of new permanent highly skilled jobs and thousands of construction jobs in Dublin and Limerick.

Why are so many biotech companies coming to Ireland? Because of our deep pool of talent, our exemplary regulatory track record, our commitment to clinical and academic research excellence and the efforts of IDA Ireland. Manufacturing excellence in biopharma is driving growth; we have gone from two manufacturing sites in 2003 to 10 in 2013 with a number of others under development.

The global biopharma sector is currently undergoing dramatic change. Where 20 years ago biologic medicines were only beginning to emerge, today the majority of new medicines are of biological origin; to the point the industry has rebranded as 'biopharma'.

Big pharma companies such as Pfizer, Roche, or Sanofi, who traditionally had in-house R&D operations focused on the production of chemical products, have changed focus. Each has recently acquired a biotech company (Wyeth, Genentech and Genzyme respectively). The key attraction is the development pipeline of potential products, most of which are biologic in origin.

As well as acquiring the companies developing new biotech products, big pharma is moving into the biologic equivalent of the generic market. Biosimilars, products highly similar to the original product but with allowable differences due to the nature of living organisms, will be the next wave of drugs to make an impact.

This investment in biologics is bearing fruit. Seven of the top 10 selling drugs in the world in 2014 were biologics. Top-seller Humira, an Abbvie biologic, has annual global sales of over $11bn.

These developments are overwhelmingly positive for patients, as many biopharma products represent major advancements in fighting disease.

Ireland already has nine of the top 10 biopharma companies, plus five of the top 10 independent biotech firms have operations here. Many of these incorporate R&D and others are in the process of expanding or adding bioprocessing facilities to existing operations. Investments in biologics in Ireland from J&J, Lilly, Pfizer, Genzyme, Allergan, and Mallinckrodt will see hundreds of millions in inward investment.

While we are already doing much to harness the opportunity, the challenge is ensuring Ireland has the bioprocessing skills necessary to match the needs of the industry and establish excellence in biomanufacturing.

To meet this need, a burgeoning expertise is emerging among colleges, design consultants, construction firms, equipment and technical support companies who collaborate to develop and support the operations of these facilities.

Industry research shows that the biggest challenge for the industry globally is the difficulty in hiring experienced technical and production staff to operate the facilities once they are built.

It was recognised at an early stage that specific measures to support biopharma's expansion were needed, if Ireland is to maintain its global leadership position.

The National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) was established by the IDA in 2006 to meet this challenge. Our mission is to support the continued development of the biopharma industry, providing research and training activity and to help attract new biopharma companies and investment into Ireland.

NIBRT provides Ireland with a strategic advantage over our competitors, adding value to ongoing R&D, while encouraging innovation in one of the country's most important industries.

Since opening for business in 2011, NIBRT has provided education and training solutions for the bioprocessing industry in our state-of-the-art €57m facility - the biopharma equivalent of a flight simulator.

Last year NIBRT trained more than 3,300 people in bioprocessing skills helping to ensure Ireland is at the cutting edge of the latest developments in biopharma. Upwards of 65pc of graduates from NIBRT Springboard courses for jobseekers successfully gain employment in the sector.

Almost 90pc of NIBRT's costs are covered by income it generated by the institute. This high level of industry take up is testament to the alignment of research with the practical challenges faced by companies developing and manufacturing complex biopharmaceutical medicines.

Since 2004, €9bn of capital investment has been committed to new biopharma facilities here. Ireland's biopharmaceutical industry will continue to advance in years to come thanks to forward planning by Government, the IDA and the strong talent that already exists across our labs, universities and the sector.

Dominic Carolan is the chief executive officer of NIBRT

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