EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Bioprocess Engineering Leadership

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Biochemical Engineering


The UK government recognises that 'our economy is driven by high levels of skills and creativity' and has prioritised investment in skills as a means to recovery rapidly from the current economic downturn (HM Government: New Industry, New Jobs, 2009). Bioprocessing skills underpin the controlled culture of cells and microorganisms and the design of safe, environmentally friendly and cost-effective bio-manufacturing processes. Such skills are generic and are increasingly being applied in the chemical, pharmaceutical and regenerative medicine sectors.

Recent reports, however, highlight specific skills shortages that constrain the UK's capacity to capitalise on opportunities for wealth and job creation in these areas. They emphasise the need for bioprocessing skills related to the application of 'mathematical skills... to biological sciences', in core bioprocess operations such as 'fermentation' and 'downstream processing' and, for many engineering graduates 'inadequate practical experience'. UK companies have reported specific problems in 'finding creative people to work in fermentation and downstream processing' (ABPI: Sustaining the Skills Pipeline, 2005 & 2008) and in finding individuals capable of addressing 'challenges that arise with scaling-up production using biological materials' (Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team report: Maximising UK Opportunities from Industrial Biotechnology, 2009). Bioprocessing skills are also scarce internationally. Many UK companies have noted 'the difficulties experienced in recruiting post-graduates and graduates conversant with bioprocessing skills is widespread and is further exaggerated by the pull from overseas (Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team report: Bioscience 2015, 2003 & 2009 update).

The EPSRC Industrial Doctorate Centre (IDC) in Bioprocess Engineering Leadership has a successful track record of equipping graduate scientists and engineers with the bioprocessing skills needed by UK industry. It will deliver a 'whole bioprocess' training theme based around fermentation and downstream processing skills which will benefit from access to a superbly equipped £25M bioprocess pilot plant. The programme is designed to accelerate graduates into doctoral research and to build a multidisciplinary research cohort. Many of the advanced bioprocessing modules will be delivered via our MBI Training Programme which benefits from input by some 70 industry experts annually (www.ucl.ac.uk/biochemeng/industry/mbi). Research projects will be carried out in collaboration with many of the leading UK chemical and pharmaceutical companies. The IDC will also play an important role supporting research activities within biotechnology-based small to medium size enterprises (SMEs). The need for the IDC is evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of EngD graduates progress to relevant bioindustry careers upon graduation.

This proposal will enable the IDC to train the next generation of bioindustry leaders capable of exploiting rapid progress in the underpinning biological sciences. Advances in Synthetic Biology in particular now enable the rational design of biological systems to utilise sustainable sources of raw materials and for improved manufacturing efficiency. These will lead to benefits in the production of chemicals and biofuels, in the synthesis of chemical and biological pharmaceuticals and in the culture of cells for therapy. The next generation of IDC graduates will also possess a better understand of the global context in which UK companies must now operate. This will be achieved by providing each EngD researcher with international placement opportunities and new training pathways either in bioprocess enterprise and innovation or in manufacturing excellence. In this way we will provide the best UK science and engineering graduates with internationally leading research and training opportunities and so contribute to the future success of the UK bioprocess industries.

Planned Impact

The IDC has a proven track record of delivering impact from its research and training activities and this will continue in the new Centre. The main types of impact relate to: (i) provision of highly skilled EngD graduates; (ii) generation of intellectual property (IP) in support of collaborating companies or for new venture creation; (iii) knowledge exchange to the wider bioprocess-using industries; (iv) benefits to patients in terms of new and more cost effective medicines, and (v) benefits to wider society via involvement in public engagement activities and encouraging future generations of researchers.

With regard to training, the provision of future bioindustry leaders is the primary mission of the IDC and some 97% of previous EngD graduates have progressed to relevant bioindustry careers. These highly skilled individuals help catalyse the development and expansion of private sector innovation and biomanufacturing activity. This is of enormous importance to capitalise on emerging markets and to create new jobs and a skilled labour force to underpin the UK economy.

In terms of IP generation each industry-collaborative EngD project will have direct impact on the industry sponsor in terms of new technology generation and improvements to existing processes or procedures. Where substantial IP is generated this has the potential to lead to spin-out company creation and job creation with wider UK economic benefit. IDC research has already led to creation of two UCL spin-out companies focussed on the emerging field of Synthetic Biology (Synthace) and novel nanofibre adsorbents for improved bioseparations (Puridify). Once arising IP is protected the IDC also provides a route for wider dissemination of project outputs and knowledge exchange available to all UK bioprocess-using companies. This occurs via UCL MBI Training Programme modules which have been attended by more than 1000 individuals from over 250 companies to date.

The majority of IDC projects address production of new medicines or process improvements for pharmaceutical or biopharmaceutical manufacture which directly benefit healthcare providers and patients. Examples arising from previous EngD projects have included: engineered enzymes used in the synthesis of a novel pharmaceutical; early stage bioprocess development for a new meningitis vaccine; redevelopment of the bioprocess for manufacture of the UK anthrax vaccine; and establishment of a cGMP process for manufacture of a tissue-engineered trachea (this was subsequently transplanted into a child with airway disease and the EngD researcher was featured preparing the trachea in the BBC's Great Ormond Street series). Each of these examples demonstrates IDC impact on the development of cost-effective new medicines and therapies. These will benefit society and provide new tools for the NHS to meet the changing requirements for 21st Century healthcare provision.

Finally, in terms of wider public engagement and society, the IDC has achieved substantial impact via involvement of staff and researchers in activities with schools (STEMnet, HeadStart courses), presentations at science fairs (Big Bang, Cheltenham), delivery of high profile public lectures (Wellcome Trust, Royal Institution) as well as TV and radio presentations. The next generation of IDC researchers will be increasingly involved in such outreach activities to explain how the potential economic and environmental benefits of Synthetic Biology can be delivered safely and responsibly.


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