The skills gap is considered one of the greatest challenges facing the UK’s life science and medtech sectors today. In particular, areas like bioinformatics and data mining have been identified as fields in which the UK stands to fall behind. Brexit is thought to be likely to compound the problem. An initiative from the University of Leicester aims to address the problem, as well as fostering new innovation and discoveries, both in medtech and pharmaceuticals.
To signal the official launch of the initiative, a delegation of representatives from across the life sciences sector gathered in Leicester today to assess the benefits of joining an industry/academia exchange programme (similar in essence to work-based learning placements).
Students from the University of Leicester were joined by a host of industry experts, with the aim of pairing up to form the 2018/19 cohort.
Professor Phil Baker, dean of medicine at the university explained that the initiative, which has been named the IAX programme, is now open for applications and will last until the end of September 2019.
Leicester enjoys a well-established hub of life science and medtech activity. Baker said: “We’ve got the largest acute trust in the country. Our academia/NHS partnership is second to none in terms of the opportunities it gives.
“Through this exchange programme, we’re hoping that you’ll make new contacts, you’ll be buzzed and you’ll become evangelists,” he added.
The IAX programme will include the opportunity people exchanges, as well as sand pit meetings, and industry training courses for academics.
Delegates also heard from both students and organisations who took part in the programme last year.
Ashton Harper from Protexin – a manufacturer of probiotics – discussed his collaboration with Professor Toru Suzuki at the University of Leicester, explaining that since working together, the company has managed to engage in a number of spin-out projects as a result. Suzuki added: “We need industry on-board to plug the holes that we can’t access in society. I would definitely recommend this programme for academics, especially those who haven’t had that kind of interaction in the past.”
There were also exchanges between the academic world and the Finnish healthcare system amongst the previous cohort. Professor Kristiina Aittomäki, University of Helsinki and Professor. Julian Barwell, University of Leicester traded places to share ideas on the best use of electronic patient records in gaining value from genomic data.
Barwell said: “When we went to Helsinki, we talked to a number of doctors to see how they’re developing electronic patient records, as well as genomic patient testing. We want to be testing our new electronic patient record response systems with our genomic data. Developing an international link here is an important part of putting Leicester on the map.”
He continued: “We’re at a very exciting time in clinical genetics. We want to move to a place where we can give the right drug, at the right dose, and at the right time. The 100,000 Genome project at the University of Leicester is part of the project to improve bioinformatics in hospitals. It’s important for us to have the skills and capacity to interpret genomic variation. With the challenges that we have, we need to develop new types of relationships with industry. We’re developing international partnerships like the one in Helsinki to drive new innovation and to be able to offer these things on the NHS.”
Data extrapolation and interpretation was a theme throughout the discussions at the one-day event. Dr Mintu Nath took the opportunity to spend two weeks with biotech firm Thermo Fisher Scientific. “I couldn’t really connect my research with the industry perspective. I had data from 1000 patients, but getting information out of it was so hard. So then I got this opportunity to work with Thermo Fisher, and for those two weeks we worked so hard – I honestly think it was the best time of my life,” he said.
While skills development is a major objective of student exchange programmes there’s also an opportunity to take knowledge from industry and apply it in an academic setting. Dr Ana Sousa Manso took advantage of the university’s programme to spend time with pharma giant GSK last year, as part of its Proximity to Discovery programme. She explained: “It’s about understanding how we can complement each other. I spent two weeks at GSK. The main goal was to learn how they set up their cell-based assays. Decades of experience allow companies like GSK to simplify things. So I brought back with me a more efficient set up for cell-based assays. One thing I found is that as academics we have lots of ideas and meetings, and industry is exactly the same.”
Dr Mark Bamford of GSK added: “It’s about learning from each other and how we do things. It provides insight and gives us an appreciation of our partner’s strengths. Hopefully this is enabling us to work more effectively, and will enable us to make better medicines more quickly.”
The project is the brainchild of Dr Riddhi Shukla, business development manager at the University. IAX, Shukla said, is now open for entries, and the application form will be live at www.iax-leicester.com by the end of the week. Funding for IAX has come from the Medical Research Council, and Shukla added that a maximum of £10,000 will be granted to successful applicants to cover all directly-incurred costs.