Comment: Scotland can lead a green pharmaceutical revolution - Mark Bustard

There have been few positives to take from the Covid-19 pandemic. But, one takeaway that has struck me as revelation is the sheer speed and urgency of the UK’s incredible vaccine manufacturing performance.

Mark Bustard, CEO of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC). Picture: Chris Watt
Mark Bustard, CEO of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC). Picture: Chris Watt

With this spotlight comes the growing interest in global health and in the development of new pharmaceuticals and treatments, driven by societal need during the pandemic – figures from the UK Bioindustry Association and Clarivate show that investment in biotechnology companies hit a record £2.8 billion in equity finance last year.

Though the pandemic has dominated life across the globe, the focus on sustainability has remained throughout. In May, Scottish Enterprise announced it would only support companies with a commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions and it is just one of many organisations pledging to reach the same target in the coming decades with a plethora of further pledges expected ahead of COP26 in Glasgow later this year.

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The transition towards a more sustainable future will be more difficult for some industries than others – in some cases, such as the oil and gas sector, by the very nature of their work. Perhaps less obvious than the case of the energy sector is the carbon footprint of the pharmaceutical industry. Yet, as a major global manufacturing sector, its green industrial revolution is something that will need to be addressed.

Discussions on the topic are progressing and some positive moves forward have been mooted. Just last year, the British Medical Association GP Committee suggested that all medicines should be labelled with their carbon footprint, arguing that 90 per cent of the carbon footprint of general practice is associated with prescribing pharmaceuticals.

However, the manufacturing of DNA and RNA-based medicines are prime examples that demonstrate the sheer size and scale of the challenge at hand. Their production is an inherently complex process to develop that tends to be expensive and create significant amounts of solvent waste. Nevertheless, such technology is hugely important and was brought to bear in the drive to develop an effective RNA vaccine for Covid-19.

Indeed, we saw at the height of the first wave of the pandemic how fragile our global medicines supply chains are. To be a part of the new post-pandemic world, the model on which the industry is currently built needs to be re-designed and re-constructed with supply chain security at its heart.

Looking to areas that could be improved in regard to their security of supply, a significant part of that process could be moving away from solvent-based, energy-intensive reactions towards biologically based processes and raw materials made locally. Today, the vast majority of raw materials used in the manufacture of medicines are made in low cost-base countries rather than within the UK.

A serious opportunity for Scotland lies in its ability to grow bio-based feedstocks and implement processes that ensure greater control of its supply chains. Sugar beet, for instance, can be grown, harvested, and fermented in Scotland as an alternative feedstock for bio-chemistry. Through bio-catalysis, we can then use enzymes and other natural catalysts to accelerate chemical reactions that create the building blocks for sustainable, high-value medicines.

A shining example of Scotland’s bioeconomy prowess is its longest standing industrial biotechnology company, Ingenza. The business has successfully transitioned its biotechnology expertise to not only make high-value chemicals, but also medicines such as the antibiotic Epidermicin and its Factor VIII blood product.

We already have the tools in place to deliver that ambition in Scotland. There is a growing eco-system of businesses working in the pharmaceuticals and medical biotechnology field – with some 770 life sciences organisations generating combined turnover of around £5.2 billion, according to Life Sciences Scotland – while the IBioIC, Centre for Process Innovation, and Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre provide hubs for pioneering R&D and scale-up.

A critical factor to furling the green industrial pharmaceutical revolution is ensuring Scotland has the skills required to drive sustainability through pharmaceutical supply chains. Many of the core skills that are used in industrial biotechnology are broadly transferrable to medical biotechnology and life sciences, and many of the PhDs IBioIC has invested in have relevance to human health.

There is clear and present opportunity to lead the way in applying green chemistry to the future of healthcare. Initiatives such as The Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network demonstrate our ability to take existing skills and apply them to emerging opportunities in vaccine manufacturing, along with cell and gene therapy.

Moreover, while Covid-19 may have shown how quickly supply chains can fall apart, it also demonstrated that they can quickly be put together when necessity dictates. In Scotland, the production and bottling of hand sanitiser was very quickly re-shored, while the efforts to develop and distribute a vaccine were herculean.

Scotland has all the tools required at its disposal to not only benefit from the increased interest in pharmaceutical manufacturing and medical biotechnology, but to drive the change required to make the industry more sustainable. The key will be to learn from the experience of the pandemic and bring together those different strengths to build a new, greener model for the future of medicine.

- Mark Bustard is chief executive of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC). The IBioIC was established in 2014 to fulfil the aims of the National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology to grow the industrial biotechnology sector in Scotland to over £900 million in turnover, with over 200 companies operating in the sector by 2025.

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