Chemical and biological engineering is coming of age. PharmaTimes talks to Professor James Litster, head of department of chemical and biological engineering at The University of Sheffield

The modern pharmaceutical industry is being driven by biologics. Whether it’s monoclonal antibodies, gene therapy or new mRNA vaccines targeting Covid-19, engineering these molecules requires a unique set of skills.

“There’s been big changes in the sector over the past two decades. Chemical and biological engineering is more important now in pharma where we see companies engineering molecules of increasing complexity – the more complex the therapy, the bigger the role of engineering,” says Professor James Litster, head of department of chemical and biological engineering at The University of Sheffield, which has just launched a Masters in Pharmaceutical Engineering.

Covid and the resulting vaccine development has pushed the importance of this role in pharma into the spotlight. From genetically engineering cells, developing the cell culture reactor, and manufacturing at scale, to bioanalysis, and speeding time to market, chemical and biological engineering is multifaceted and brings a systems and problem-solving approach to pharma products, complementing other pharmaceutical scientists, Litster explains.

The University’s chemical and biological engineering department has applied these skills itself in the research effort against Covid. In early 2020, the University’s labs manufactured the spike glycoprotein to validate antibody tests in Sheffield hospitals. “We genetically engineered the cells, looked at hundreds of grams of material, then a different group in the department separated the glycoproteins and another group used mass spectrometry to analyse these,” Litster says, noting that The University of Sheffield is one of the research-intensive Russell Group Universities, and one of the few with a strong focus on chemical and biological engineering.

The work also exemplifies the department’s collaborative culture. It already has strong relationships with the industry, including all the major players, through its advanced biomanufacturing centre and expertise in continuous manufacturing and innovations. Litster describes these long-term relationships as symbiotic. “It helps us to focus on the right problems to solve – real world problems – and gives an opportunity for research students to work as part of a team and develop industry-ready skills for when they go on to get jobs in the sector. The industry gets access to our expertise and key people, who have the time to focus on solving general problems that affect the sector.”

It’s for these reasons that The University of Sheffield has developed a Masters in Pharmaceutical Engineering, which will cover primary and secondary manufacture of both small and large molecule pharmaceuticals. It aims to help upskill pharma’s future workforce and produce people who understand the problems the industry is facing. “There are a number of Masters available in Europe and North America. They have an emphasis on pharmaceutical science and chemistry, but few look at the engineering of products. In discussions we’ve had with the industry, they say yes, we need people with these skills,” Litster says.

The pharma and formulated products sector is already the second biggest employer of the Department’s graduates and Litster believes it will become the biggest employer in the next few years as the role of engineering in the industry becomes more recognised and the sector grows in the UK. “Training the next generation is important – the current pandemic shows how important it is to have a strong and vibrant pharma industry in the country both for the health and the economy of the country.”

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