Are we ready for the next big thing in life sciences?

29 Apr 2019

Image: © sdecoret/

A revolution in cell and gene therapy means Ireland is strategically poised to win in the future of life sciences, writes John Kennedy.

Most days driving towards Dublin, I pass by the giant Takeda (formerly Shire) plant near Dunboyne and marvel at its scale in the same way Intel’s massive chip manufacturing plant wows me in Leixlip when I take a different route to the city.

The scale of the plant is, to me, a signpost to the future, as it ought to be for the legions of motorists who drift past wondering what’s going on in there. I use the metaphor of Intel because we are talking about a global revolution in pharma as pivotal as that of the digital revolution.

‘Ireland is emerging as the place where life-saving drugs should be manufactured’

The Takeda plant and its future could be equally pivotal to Ireland’s future in a new age of life sciences driven by personalised medicine, and underpinned by digital delivery and supply chain management.

A more precise design for life

A revolution in cell and gene therapies means that a rise in precision manufacturing in Ireland among life sciences and pharma players is setting Ireland up for a more bespoke future of drug manufacturing, where unique drugs for patients can be created and dispatched within 48 hours to anywhere in the world.

In 2017 I wrote about how Ireland is on the cusp of a Pentium-like era in life sciences, precisely because of this revolution. The old process-style pharma companies of the past have increasingly given way to a campus-like style of collaboration, research and automation more reminiscent of Google than the smokestack image of the past.

In the past decade alone, more than $10bn has been invested in biopharma in Ireland as the industry pivots to a future away from small-molecule pharma to biologics and, with increasing pace, cell and gene therapy. In 2015 the biopharma sector recorded €39bn worth of exports, and it contributes more than €1bn in corporation tax to the Irish exchequer annually.

There are now more than 120 biopharmaceutical operations in the country, out of which 40 are approved by the FDA to produce goods for the pivotal US market. Roughly 30,000 people are employed in highly paid roles by the industry in Ireland.

To get a sense of the scale of the pharma industry in Ireland, according to CSO figures the biggest export category in 2018 was medical and pharmaceutical products. Exports of these goods accounted for a third of total goods exports in 2018, and increased by €10,867m (up 31pc) when compared with 2017.

A miracle drug for the regions

While Ireland has had process industries that owe their heritage to centuries of food and dairy production as well as brewing, the growth and evolution of pharmaceuticals in the history of the industry has led to the emergence of a world-class indigenous support network. Players of note include project management player PM Group and pharma research player APC, which has engineered itself to be the linchpin of product strategy for the world’s biggest pharma giants.

“Ireland is emerging as the place where life-saving drugs should be manufactured,” said Tommy Fanning, head of IDA Ireland’s biopharmaceuticals and food division.

“The industry has become much more advanced, growing from small-molecule manufacturing to much more complex areas like biologics, and we are upskilled for more than 20 biologics sites. These are highly automated operations and we are seeing R&D teams on site and closer to the actual manufacturing.

“Our expertise [is] becoming more process development than product development, the place where those life-saving drugs of the future will be manufactured.”

Having comfortably captured an edge in biologics, Fanning said that the next revolution will be in cell and gene therapy.

Another unique characteristic of the industry is how distributed it is around Ireland, with plants such as Abbott in Donegal, and Edwards Lifesciences and Johnson & Johnson Vision Care in Limerick, to name a few.

On an indigenous level, vital expertise and entrepreneurial nous are being displayed through emergent players such as Trinity spin-outs CroíValve and Azadyne. In recent months Dundalk and Belfast firm Diaceutics enjoyed a spectacular £53m IPO on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market while Accenture snapped up Cork life sciences consultancy ESP for an undisclosed sum.

“Decades of endurance [have] resulted in unrivalled expertise and experience, and increasingly we are seeing a lot of transferable skills between the pharma and ICT industries.”

Perhaps unlike the ICT sector, Fanning pointed out that the pharma industry is largely an indigenous success story, with 95pc of people who work in these companies graduates of Irish universities, meaning there is much more room to accommodate overseas talent and foster cultural diversity.

Fanning sees this as a massive opportunity for regional Ireland to highlight the quality-of-life advantages to help attract workers from overseas. “The companies and the regions need to communicate that there are these well-paid jobs in an environment where people can afford to live and enjoy a superior quality of life.”

The beating heart of the pharma industry of Ireland is the university and college ecosystem, and Fanning also cited the vital contribution of the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT), with its pilot-scale biotech manufacturing facilities.

“NIBRT is playing a huge role in attracting new biologics companies, and more than 4,000 people go through NIBRT each year.”

But the crucial opportunity lies in the precision, bespoke world of cell and gene therapy. And for that to happen, life sciences needs to continue to be a regional success story but also embrace cultural diversity.

“That revolution will happen quickly. We cannot rest on our laurels. We’ve been successful in pharma and biologics. But the next big thing will be cell and gene therapy. We need to be ready for that.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years