Life Sciences: Collaboration for innovation

MMIC’s help to look at the big picture in solving problems is paying off, writes David Lee

When new technology infrastructure is created, it’s important to step back and ask “Why?” What’s the purpose of the new creation? What value is it adding?

It’s not difficult for John Arthur, director of the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC) at CPI, to answer.

The centre is a public-private partnership led by CPI (an independent deep tech innovation organisation) and Arthur is clear where CPI is adding value – by getting to the heart of the matter, as Graham Greene might have said.

The Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, which has just opened near Glasgow Airport, affords the ability to accelerate complex, multi-partner projectsThe Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, which has just opened near Glasgow Airport, affords the ability to accelerate complex, multi-partner projects
The Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, which has just opened near Glasgow Airport, affords the ability to accelerate complex, multi-partner projects

That means bringing relevant partners together to manufacture medicines more efficiently and look for opportunities to develop the industry to create a sustainable, competitive advantage for the UK in global pharmaceutical manufacturing.

“It’s the big-picture stuff that CPI brings – the ability to accelerate complex, multi-partner projects,” says Arthur. “That capability wasn’t there a few years ago.

“We step back and solve problems. When you’re running a specific business, there are always competing commercial priorities. It’s often difficult to resource the strategic challenges when you are fixing the problems of the day. At CPI, we provide the time and space to tackle the big issues.”

Staff are now moving into the new site beside Glasgow Airport, ahead of the official launch. The clean rooms, where the innovative testing work will take place, are nearly complete. The first piece of equipment, a £1 million state-of-the-art tablet press, will be delivered in the next couple of weeks.

“The facility looks great and we’re excited to have the formal launch for industry in September,” says Arthur.

The centre has been set up to tackle “grand challenges” – big issues identified by the pharmaceuticals industry as crucial to a successful, sustainable future.

Grand challenge one involves AstraZeneca and GSK working with CPI and the University of Strathclyde to effectively develop “continuous direct compression” – a more efficient way of mixing ingredients using multiple feeders and sensors to produce large quantities of tablets of a higher and more uniform quality.

“It’s about creating a digital model, then proving that it works through an automated tablet press,” says Arthur. “If we find bits that don’t quite work as well, we fine-tune the model, so the ‘digital twin’ truly reflects what happens in industry.”

Arthur uses a flight analogy: “We are collecting lots of data to build a ‘flight simulator’ of the equipment where we can test various materials and equipment configurations in a digital space. We can then check these set-ups on the plant and when the simulator is perfected, and we can use it to optimise tablet formulations.

“We can then use the model as an autopilot to control the system. When you turn the autopilot on, it keeps it flying where you want to go, adjusting the controls to allow for changes in conditions. It’s the same principle with the tableting press.”

Grand challenge two is all about efficiency in packaging tablets for clinical trials – being able to turn production on as hospitals require the drugs, rather than manufacturing large quantities which might not be needed, moving to a “just-in-time” approach, rather than “just-in-case”.

Arthur says: “When we combine grand challenge one and two, we will not produce a 250kg box of tablets when you want 5kg. You can turn the machine on and stop once you’ve made the quantity needed, then turn the machine around and make another type of tablet quickly. It enables supply chain efficiency as well as process efficiency.”

Grand challenges one and two are already under way, the first at the University of Strathclyde’s Technology Innovation Centre and the second in southern England.

Both are looking positive, says Arthur: “We’ve come a long way already even without getting into the facility. It was always planned that phase one of the grand challenges would start elsewhere, then move into the MMIC once built, and that’s what’s happening.

“We’re also starting to see interest from companies asking to do some work in the clean rooms. It will be 12-18 months before we can do that because as soon as the equipment is installed, GSK and AstraZeneca will get the first opportunity to use the rooms as the founding partners. This is the aim of the MMIC: to bring together companies of all sizes to benefit from collaborative innovation.”

The third grand challenge focuses on oligonucleotides, a group of materials with huge potential to treat diseases – including cardiovascular disease and cancer – by stopping our genesfrom producing certain proteins needed for cell growth. This challenge is being tackled at Queen Mary University in London, with industry partners including AZ, Exactmer, and Novartis.

Arthur is hugely excited by its potential, saying: “We went down for a partners’ meeting and it was absolutely brilliant. I’m a chemist, and I love science and it was like being back at university, with so many bright people in a room together. We had a really good discussion and all the partners were delighted by how collaborative it is.

“We’re pushing boundaries – not everything works first time, but the team had thought about the challenges in advance and where things haven’t worked, the mitigations have.

“We’ve continued to make progress and pushed the boundaries of this technology. We started with chemistry and we’re very close to moving into the bio-catalysis arm of the project.

“Moving away from chemistry and solvents to enzymes and water offers a number of benefits. One is sustainability because water is more environmentally friendly than chemicals. Secondly, enzymes are very fussy. They only couple this thing to that thing in exactly this way, so impurities will be substantially reduced.”

Grand challenge four is likely to focus on digital transformation in the industry. “We’re working with the Digital Processing Manufacturing Centre to create a virtual centre, first of all for training and then to produce a digital demonstrator.”

This will initially be at Booth Welsh in Irvine, North Ayrshire, with a plan to build a dedicated facility as part of a partnership between North Ayrshire Council, Scottish Enterprise, the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland, and CPI.

It can be challenging to get every bit of the industry to collaborate in a constructive way – but we’re doing it, and we’re getting a lot of recognition from industry partners and governments,” says Arthur.

“CPI has a lot of bright people coming up with brilliant ideas, to address problems and deliver incredible innovation. Our combination of technology and expertise allows us to drive game-changing collaboration.

“On a personal note, it means I’m getting the opportunity to help make a step-change in areas that were a problem during my industry career and to be involved in the manufacturing innovation of the future that will deliver positive impacts for patients.”