The biopharmaceutical industry, which accounts for most of the world’s production of medicine, is in a crucial phase. Increasing demand requires greater and more efficient production of existing products and creating safe and cost-effective production processes for new medicines. Further developing the industry requires both innovative thinking and highly qualified employees.
“We must now explore what biotechnology can do for the industry. Biotechnology is developing rapidly, and many opportunities exist that the biopharmaceutical industry has not yet exploited. Further, this industry has high value creation, which enables it to bear the costs associated with transforming new discoveries into practical industrial applications,” says Claus Felby, Head of Life Science Research and Industrial Applications Promoting Sustainability, Novo Nordisk Foundation.
Icebreaker for green transformation
The Foundation’s ambition is therefore to build bridges between academic research and the biopharmaceutical industry and to find areas in which new biotechnology solutions will benefit the industry. After that, the same solutions could revolutionize other industries.
“Once developed and implemented on an industrial scale, these biotechnological processes and methods could be extended to other and possibly less profitable areas, such as within green transformation, especially phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with biological solutions. The biopharmaceutical industry is the icebreaker that can accelerate the green transition,” says Claus Felby.
North Carolina State University (NC State) and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the leading research and educational institutions in their respective fields in the United States and Denmark, have received a grant of DKK 182.7 million to establish an international research and education programme in biopharmaceutical production: Accelerated Innovation in Manufacturing Biologics (AIM Bio).
“This project addresses the future needs of the biopharmaceutical industry, and we expect that it will have significant global impact on improving manufacturing processes for these new drugs. It will also train a new generation of scientists and engineers who will lead the design and execution of the processes used to manufacture them,” says Ruben Carbonell, Frank Hawkins Kenan Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State and principal investigator of AIM Bio.
“There is demand for expertise in biopharmaceutical production technologies, and NC State complements the more traditional biotechnology fermentation technologies and upstream processes in which we excel at DTU. The strengths of NC State are especially linked to the later stages in manufacturing biopharmaceutical products on which DTU has focused less intensely. We are therefore looking forward to the collaboration. By establishing mobility grants for students and developing common course material and research projects, we have great expectations that we can further strengthen the competencies of our researchers and students in biopharmaceutical production,” says Bjarke Bak Christensen, Head, Department of Biotechnology and Biomedicine, DTU.
The grant runs over 5 years and includes nine research projects in biopharmaceutical production processes. In addition, the content for the new educational programme will be designed and developed during the first 18 months, after which eight courses will be offered. A total of 1,300 specialists, including 600 at NC State and 700 at DTU, are expected to complete courses from the programme during the remainder of the grant period.
Grant outside the Nordic countries
NC State is the primary recipient of the grant, and this is the first time that the Foundation has awarded a grant of this size outside the Nordic countries. The reason is that NC State, in addition to having special competencies in continuing education, has biopharmaceutical strengths that complement those of DTU.
“Looking for inspiration and knowledge outside Denmark is important. We do not cover everything in Denmark, and NC State and DTU complement each other well, so collaboration is ideal. Further, education and research continue to become more internationalized, and the collaboration will provide knowledge and methods to both universities that will help to strengthen their leading positions in the field,” says Claus Felby.
The grant will also promote exchange visits between the two universities, with teachers, researchers and students from Denmark and the United States crossing the Atlantic between the two educational and research institutions for research projects and preparing the educational programme and teaching modules.
The grant is the third from the Foundation targeting the educational and research community in industry. In 2018, DTU received a grant of DKK 187 million to establish an educational programme in fermentation that funds six PhD students and 15–20 MSc students annually. In addition, the DTU received a grant in 2017 of DKK 118 million to establish a fermentation plant.
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