Automating cell and gene therapy manufacture ‘has to be accelerated’, says Lonza CEO
The larger contract manufacturing and development organization (CDMO) have developed an appetite for acquiring capabilities in the cell and gene therapy space.
For instance, Lonza filled a strategic gap in its own portfolio through the acquisition of PharmaCell – providing it with a base in the Netherlands with cell and gene manufacturing capabilities.
Rival CDMOs have followed suit, with large sums changing hands in the deals that saw Thermo Fisher takeover gene therapy specialist Brammer Bio and Catalent acquire Paragon.
With increased competition in the space, some have raised concerns about the numbers of talent needed to serve this space and the challenges of keeping them once hired.
BioPharma-Reporter (BPR) spoke to Marc Funk (MF), CEO of Lonza, to gain a leadership perspective about the challenges of recruiting in the space and more broadly about the challenges facing cell and gene therapy manufacture.
BPR: Cell and gene therapy space is developing quickly – how are you ensuring that talent are brought in and retained?
MF: We need to be aware of staff retention, but it's not necessarily specific to the cell and gene therapy space. The focus is training the right talent, bringing them on board, and helping the industry cope with the unmet need in cell and gene therapy. In this regard, we are not different to anybody else, but what we can say is that we do not have talent erosion – people that come to our sites are happy to stay.
BPR: What are the main challenges in cell and gene therapy?
MF: The major challenge is how to make sure that the industry brings robust, scalable, industrialized manufacturing processes, as fast as possible. That's the main problem.
We are addressing this by capitalizing on our knowledge in mammalian technology, bringing in more innovation: for example, automation for autologous manufacturing and moving from 2D stacks to 3D bioreactors for allogeneic and viral vector manufacturing.
BPR: How important is automation for cell and gene therapy manufacture?
MF: For cell and gene therapies, this is an essential move that has to be accelerated. There are certain processes today that are manual but have no reason to be. That's one of the critical barriers to making the manufacturing of these medicines more robust.
BPR: Are you looking at hiring to bring in experts to improve automations? For instance, experts in AI or machine learning?
MF: We are currently doing that – consciously and with high expectations that this will bring better solutions.
BPR: In particular, how do you work to entice talent to work at the Visp site?
MF: The first thing is to have a great project – one that young talent can identify with. Within Lonza, that means attracting people who wish to help deliver better medicines in this world.
The second thing is to make sure that we build the right infrastructure here, in partnership with the local communities. We work closely with the authorities and schools in Valais (the Swiss canton where Visp is located) to offer apprenticeships and develop local talent. For employees coming from outside the local area, we’re working to make sure that the right infrastructure is in place in the region around the site, such as childcare and support for people coming to Switzerland for the first time. All of this is starting to take shape today.
BPR: How is Lonza preparing for the future?
MF: I think that the move we have made to develop the biopark here in Visp – redesigning our plant and our business model – is already a lesson in how we want to be set up for the future. Although we acknowledge that how we manufacture biologics will change, even within the next two to three years.
The way we are designing the plant today is set up to respond to the changes coming, with space for expansion and the flexibility that changing technology requires. But there are some things we need to do even better now, for example, improving downstream processes. That's an area that we, and the industry in general, is looking at – to make sure that we have much better productivity. In addition, the industry needs to be able to bring molecules in clinical development through at a much faster pace than today.
Marc Funk has been CEO at Lonza since March 2019 and a member of the executive committee since April 2012. Prior to his time at Lonza, Funk held leadership roles at Merck Serono and Geneprot.