NICB: Where Chinese hamster ovarian cells give birth to new therapies

24 Apr 2018

Equipment found at NICB. Image: Padraig Doolan/NICB

The National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology in north Dublin is forging ties between Ireland’s biopharma industry and research, with some of the country’s best facilities.

You only have to be a casual observer to know that in the age of advanced biological research, spurred on by the likes of CRISPR and artificial intelligence, the biopharma sector is booming right now.

In 2013, the global biologics market was valued at more than $200bn; by the end of 2019, that is expected to skyrocket to more than $386bn.

Ireland alone is driving much of this, with 24 of the world’s largest 25 biopharma companies having a presence here, in a sector producing €39bn in exports, or 50pc of the Irish national total.

One of the research centres contributing to this push is the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB). Based at the Dublin City University (DCU) campus, it has been in its current location since 2006.

The multidisciplinary institute has two key pillars on which it stands: the first is its work in biopharma and collaboration with industry giants such as Pfizer, and the second is translational research that encompasses a number of strands, including cancer, tissue engineering, ocular diseases, agritech and chemical biology.


NICB is based at the DCU campus. Image: Padraig Doolan/NICB

So, all in all, the centre of around 50 researchers has its hands full working on the cultivation of mammalian cell culture lines for disease treatment and the production of biopharmaceuticals.

For those unfamiliar, mammalian cells are the backbone of biopharma research and are used in the production of therapeutic proteins for biological and medical research.

Perhaps unknown to many outside of the field is the fact that the dominant variety of mammalian cell used by the NICB – and many others – is the Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cell. These cells exploded on to the biopharma scene in the 1950s because of their rapid growth in suspension culture and high protein production.

The big CHO

Speaking with, NICB’s senior research fellow at the CHO group, Dr Padraig Doolan, said that the cell type accounts for 35pc of the world’s biotherapeutics, dwarfing the next-largest cell group.

In fact, as Doolan explained, the NICB was instrumental in bringing CHO cells to the world stage – until 2004, their workings remained much of a mystery to science.

“[Back then] no one really knew an awful lot about the biology in the cell, and we and other groups internationally put a lot of effort into understanding the molecular biology of what exactly was going on,” Doolan explained.

“That was a successful collaboration as we learned a lot about how it worked and definitely raised the profile of biopharma research in Ireland and internationally.”

Padraig Doolan

Padraig Doolan, senior research fellow at NICB. Image: Padraig Doolan/NICB

Efforts to make the latest breakthroughs in cell lines and biotechnology are bolstered by the fact that the centre has access to the most extensive cell culture cleanroom facilities of any research institute in Ireland, but also by the available access to its cell bank.

So, for example, a researcher looking to work on studying brain cancer can come to the NICB, collect brain cancer cells lines and then take them to their own lab for further research.

“That’s something we’ve been building up over 30 years of research, both as the National Cell and Tissue Culture Centre [its predecessor] and now in NICB. That’s a really valuable asset that the institute has,” Doolan said.

Strong industry partnerships

This amount of access to CHO cells has made the institute popular with industry, too, with pharma giant Pfizer engaged with it since 2004 to develop therapeutic proteins.

Through Pfizer, many of the researchers working at NICB have gone on to transition to industry, and this has been key to the centre receiving State funding through grant awards to conduct early-stage research that will benefit industry, but also contribute towards research in life sciences in general.

On top of that, there are partnerships with academic institutions including Harvard Medical School, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the University of Ulster and the Warwick Systems Biology Centre.

Looking to the future, Doolan said the institute’s current plan is to continue down the same path of producing cell lines for both the biopharma industry and translational research – and you can’t deny that’s a good path to follow.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic