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Manufacture Business Practice, Technology and Equipment, Trends & Forecasts

From Strength to Strength

Why did you choose science?

I grew up in the 1960s, and there was so much happening in terms of science and technology: the moon landing, the first heart transplant, Concorde... Nowadays, technology is so commonplace and disposable that we take it for granted, but when I was a child, each and every one of these things was a miracle – and that definitely influenced me.

I also think my parents had a big impact. They encouraged my curiosity, and let me do a lot of things that many modern parents would not! I remember performing chemistry experiments on the gas stove – I destroyed a number of my mother’s saucepans by melting sulfur and boiling acid in them... I also broke quite a few things around the house by taking them to pieces to see how they worked. But my parents never stopped me or yelled at me for being curious.

How did your pharma career get started?

I spent 18 or 19 years doing academic research, so I didn’t enter industry until I was nearly 40, which is a bit unusual. I was fortunate enough to spend time in a number of very good research institutions, which taught me a lot of humility. When you meet so many people who are simply orders of magnitude smarter than you are, you realize you have to figure out what makes you unique, because you can’t compete with people on pure cleverness! I learned a lot of lessons from my time in academia.

When I entered industry – AstraZeneca – I originally managed a group of three people working in drug discovery. Three years later, I was heading a group of maybe 500 people all around the world – mainly because of so many changes, mergers and acquisitions and so on. Someone said to me: “Will you have a go at managing this? You always try hard, and perhaps do the things other people don’t like doing.”

So the advice I give to people is to be patient in times of difficulty, such as when everything is falling apart around your ears... Be the person to stand up and try to fix it, and that will go a long way towards helping you move forward with your career.

How did you find the jump from research to GE?

I used to work in the very early parts of pharmaceutical discovery, so the molecules we discovered would still have at least ten years before they came to the market – and we met with failure probably 99.9 percent of the time. In GE the work has mainly been about developing new biopharmaceutical manufacturing technology. It means I’ve moved much closer to the customer – product cycles are much shorter, and when you develop a product it goes to the market in two or three years. It’s great to actually get to launch products! When I first came to GE we were launching perhaps 20 products a year. In early stage pharmaceutical research, you feel lucky if you participate in one project in your entire lifetime that results in a drug reaching the market.

On the flip side, there’s been more commercial pressure in my GE roles. I’m much closer to the financial realities of the business; if something goes out into the market and does not do well, it has consequences. In early stage pharma research, one tends to be more distant from that (or at least we were in my day). When I first joined GE, I didn’t even know what a profit margin was! But providing you have an interest you can pick that sort of stuff up.

What trends do you see in technology adoption?

The speed at which the industry adopts new biopharmaceutical manufacturing technology is always a major challenge. The lack of pace means missed opportunities to improve. Right now, the market for individual therapeutic indications is very competitive. If you look at the explosion in immunotherapies, there are many molecules competing for the same or similar indications. The question of how to get to the clinic faster is becoming more important every year. Twenty years ago, there were perhaps one or two molecules for a particular indication. Now, in the immunotherapy market you might see as many as ten different molecules appearing almost simultaneously. Being second on the market might be okay, but being fifth probably isn’t – and the time difference between being second and fifth is not large. Time to develop manufacturing processes, deliver molecules to the clinic and build manufacturing infrastructure plays a key role in competitiveness.

When I speak to folks in the industry, I often hear “Yes, we know this new manufacturing technology is great and that it works, but honestly? We just don’t have time, we’re focusing on getting our product to market as fast as we can.” For a blockbuster drug, every day that you lose is costing you millions of dollars – far more than the cost of using slightly older but still adequate technology. People in pharma love new technology – they’re scientists, they want the best and latest – but they’re also aware of the highly competitive race to market, so they have limited time to explore other considerations. Once you design a process and put products into that process, it’s difficult to change it. But given that you’ll have to live with the decisions you make today for the next 20 years, you better make sure it’s a good decision!

What do you think should be a priority for 2018?

Over my career, I’ve seen biopharmaceuticals go from a niche interest to a big part of the drug market – and to be a little part of that is so gratifying. We are on a tremendous trajectory: biopharmaceutical sales will probably grow in double digits for the next five years. The big question is how to get enough capacity in terms of manufacturing. There is a very complicated supply chain behind manufacturing, and we need to consider whether it is robust enough to support long-term growth. We need to find a balance between making sure that we build on the strength and security of our past, and embracing new tools and technologies that are going to make us even better tomorrow.

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About the Author
Roisin McGuigan

I have an extensive academic background in the life sciences, having studied forensic biology and human medical genetics in my time at Strathclyde and Glasgow Universities. My research, data presentation and bioinformatics skills plus my ‘wet lab’ experience have been a superb grounding for my role as a Deputy Editor at Texere Publishing. The job allows me to utilize my hard-learned academic skills and experience in my current position within an exciting and contemporary publishing company.

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