General Manager, Patheon Biologics, by Thermo Fisher Scienfitic Patheon
Q. Is the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industry in Australia as developed as the UK?
A. OK.. let’s break these questions into two buckets. To address the first, ….it is and it isn’t. The industry is as developed with respect to the work Patheon undertake here is exactly the same as I did in the UK. However, there are gaps in Australian capabilities to supply cGMP (human grade) medicines in some areas—like the Oxford University mRNA covid-19 vaccine—currently at a commercial scale. In addition, it’s harder for startups or young biotech companies in Australia to get funding than in the UK. I would say that the research capability in Australia is one of the best in the world though.
Q. What is the 4th industrial revolution and how does our work fit with it?
A. I like to describe the 4th Industrial revolution as ‘the internet of things’, but perhaps it is better described as the uniform integration of cyber technology into everyday life, globally. What this means for the biotechnology industry and STEM is all about data. While the internet and automation is not new, it’s not everywhere, and some systems are still very manual.
Also consider data sharing— the rate of knowledge accumulation and collective use is currently growing exponentially. What we will know tomorrow is probably twice what we know today, and we can access and share this globally. This then allows us to improve our processes and systems much faster.
Ultimately, the goal is to enable us to get medicines to patients faster. When I started in the industry, the average timeline was about 20 years from the lab to the commercial product. In the last 20 years, we have shaved off five to 10 years. I am really keen to see how we can challenge this with COVID-19 therapies and get commercial vaccines to patients in just 18 months to two years. This is a great example of how the world has rallied together, shared data and moved in a uniform direction to meet a common cause.
Q. What products do you produce? Where are the products you develop affecting and benefiting society? (Marni, Atherton SHS)
A. At our site here in Brisbane, Patheon produces recombinant protein therapeutics using mammalian cell culture. Simply put, we make medicines to treat a number of illnesses, including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, tunnel vision, as well as many other rare diseases, which mimic the proteins already in the human body. Unlike chemical drugs, like chemotherapy agents, they are much better tolerated and patients do not get as sick as when taking a chemical drug, or lose their hair.
We are a contract manufacturer, which means you never see our name on the label, but we make the therapies for other well-known companies you may see their name on the medicine. Examples of the types of drugs we make you may hear of would be Herceptin (for breast cancer), Rituxan (for myeloma / blood cancers) and Eylea (for tunnel vision and wet macular degeneration). These are multi-billion dollar markets globally, which is why many companies want to make them. We are currently making a therapeutic which can help COVID-19 patients as well who are sick in hospital, and it played a part in the vaccine production currently in Phase 1 trials as well. So most of my staff come to work each day because they see that we are helping people stay safer and healthier.
Q. What first interested you in biotechnology as a career path? (Emma, Babinda State School)
A. Actually, I thought I wanted to be a vet because I loved animals, but I realised I didn’t want to have to put them to sleep. So I looked at how I could help in other ways. Biotechnology was booming in the mid-1980s when I was your age and offered a way where science could be used for good. I also saw some early biotech companies make a lot of money, so I thought I could do that too. So I enrolled in the university’s first ever biotechnology program and never looked back!
I may not own a red Ferrari but I am deeply rewarded every day by knowing that we are helping critically ill people get to have more rewarding times with their families. That was solidified in 2002 when I was working in the labs on a product and the customer told us about a young mother, with three children under six, who was given six weeks or less to live, and after taking our product in a clinical trial, she was not only alive still, but was still alive five years later. Knowing those kids got to have their mum for at least five more years—when mine had just passed a year earlier from another form of cancer—was my overwhelming reason to stay in the industry.
Q. What qualifications did you have to enter the biotechnology field? (Emma, Babinda State School)
A. Degree to Honours to PhD to Postdoc to industry.
At the time, I did an Applied Science degree in Biotechnology. The courses have all changed now, but then, it was one-third biochemistry, one-third chemical engineering and one-third microbiology. The courses offered now are much better defined. However, I employ a range of staff, from those with straight science degrees through to chemical engineers.
My only advice is do what you like. I did well enough to get into the Honours course, so did a year’s Honours degree in the labs of chemical engineering (making bluetongue virus vaccines for cattle using insect cell culture). I think that got me loving biotechnology—I could for the first time see how what I was doing in the lab could be applied in the field. It was tangible!!! But then I worried I was limiting myself being too ‘applied’ and did I really KNOW anything, so I decided to do a PhD at ANU in Canberra in more basic protein science, but with CSIRO—Department of Wildlife and Ecology at the time—developing a humane alternative to control feral animal populations.
So yes, I actually developed a novel and valid working rabbit immune-contraceptive vaccine candidate. The challenge was, how to disseminate that into the field. This was tricky and another groups issue so had not really progressed at the time. I then moved to the UK for some post-docs back in biotech and working on industry challenges and solutions and that opened the door into Industry. I stayed in the UK for 20 years, as there were not many biotech industry jobs in Australia until more recently again.
Q. You are a mentor in the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) supporting PhD students in your industry. How does being a mentor benefit you?
I love what I do, but I am always being ‘reverse mentored’ while I mentor and coach. I honestly grew up in a different era to you and the challenges are different today and the competition is greater, so I am reverse mentored at each and every meeting in thought diversity. The pressure you put on yourselves today is immense. I had it much easier.
We need teams of people who THINK diversely to continue pushing us into being successful in this 4th industrial revolution. It’s not ‘what you know’ but how you apply it and how you can work collaboratively to solve problems. Machines can learn, but they lack creativity and it’s this thought diversity and creativity that your generation can bring to the table that I value so much.
So if I can help the up and coming generation of scientists to achieve their potential twice as fast as I did, fantastic. I regularly meet with all staff to hear what they have to say, as by no means do I think I know it all. Only high performing teams who practice strong thought diversity make companies successful. I LOVE people who disagree with me. It means I have something to learn and I like learning new things and new ways to consider looking at a problem.
Q. Is Patheon working on solutions for COVID-19?
A. Yes! We are! In Brisbane, we finished working on one vaccine component, for which the vaccine is now in clinical trials in Australia. We are manufacturing a second therapy for another client which treats the symptoms of COVID-19 and it is in Phase 3 trials. So if this is successful, this may be fast tracked for commercialisation—which is normally a 3 year process—so we are waiting to see what happens. We are also in discussions with some other clients for other therapies.
Q. Have technologies changed how pharmaceuticals are developed?
A. Yes. There is hieroglyphic evidence, from 40,000 years ago, of willow bark being used as a pharmaceutical. The active ingredient of willow bark is salicylic acid. People chewed on the bark to get relief from pains. Bayer were one of the first companies to harness this in a stable form (acetylsalicylic acid), now known commonly as aspirin. Fast forward to 25 years ago, when I started in the industry, recombinant therapeutic protein drugs made up for <10% new drugs in the market. The 90% were chemical/small molecule drugs like Panadol and chemical tablets. Now the protein-based therapeutics are overtaking the new molecules entering the market and make up about 70% or more of ‘new drugs’ hitting the pharmacy and hospital shelves.
However, they are also expensive to manufacture, and whereas an aspirin tablet may cost you less than 20c a treatment, it’s likely that, especially if not covered under the government schemes, a human therapy may cost you $10,000 a dose. The governments DO cover most of the costs though. One drug a few years ago was marketed at about $200,000 for a single dose as it actually could be curative—i.e. some patients were disease free. The company was taken to court though for being too ‘greedy’ and ordered to reduce their pricing.
So new developments are all about how do we make it faster and cheaper, but keep it as safe or safer for use in humans. It costs between $1.5B to $2B to get a drug from the lab to commercialisation, so the companies need to recover those costs. And 80% + fail, so they also have to cover those costs. These days, the focus is on 1.better ways to identify if it’s a good drug or not and cut costs earlier and 2. get commercialised faster and cheaper, always with the patient in mind. For example, we charge less today than we did five years ago for the same service as technologies have improved.
Q. Your company works in partnership with university research facilities; what do you think can be achieved if you’re successful in getting researchers and industry to work together more?
A. It’s about technology acceleration and testing out new technologies in academic environments, which you can then apply in the regulated manufacturing environments to make medicines cheaper and safer for patients in a faster timeframe. It also, to the points above—increases thought diversity and focuses academia on what is important to industry and the real world. Of course, we still need academia to also focus on ground breaking new discoveries, but it’s getting a great balance in place.
If you think about it this way. I am paid to manufacture these medicines a certain way. There may be a better way to do it, but I can only do what I am paid to do because of the laws in place to ensure the safety and consistency of the medicines—think about it as a defined ‘recipe’. We use our collaborations between industry and academia to do it a better way every day and refine, change and disrupt our recipes and make it more cost-effective long term for the patients who need it.
Q. Now that you work as a general manager do you miss the science, or do you still get to be involved?
A. I still get to do science, so it’s all OK. I get to interact with fantastic scientists and engineers every day. Science has evolved so fast and by so much, I am overwhelmed by how intelligent students are today. I visit the manufacturing floor and the labs to talk to my teams and ask what they are doing. I support and challenge academic students we help support to stay current. But my job as general manager is more about risk balancing and supporting people development.
When I get to do what I love every day,which is help my teams solve problems in science to get medicines to patients faster, and help develop the next generation of scientists and engineers to get there faster than I did, I am still doing science every day—it’s just a little different to doing stuff on the bench. I still keep current and help review science, and help review reports and science policies, so it’s really the THINKING bit I get to do, and that’s the bit I love!
Dr Baker is passionate about science education and developing future scientific and engineering talent to help grow the Biotechnology industry in Australia through improved collaboration between industry and academia.
Patheon is a contract manufacturer of biological parental products produced from mammalian cell lines for both ongoing clinical trials and commercial drug manufacture serving a worldwide market.
Dr Baker is a mentor to both national and international professionals through the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) and Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS). IMNIS is an industry-led initiative of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. IMNIS connects motivated PhD students (mentees) in STEM with outstanding high-level industry leaders (mentors).
Dr Baker has a strong academic and commercial background, holding a variety of positions in the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industry for over 20 years in the UK.
Returning to Australia, Dr Baker took up the GM role in Patheon in 2015. Dr Baker graduated with 1st class Honours from the first ever intake of University of QLDs Bachelor of Applied Science Biotechnology programme then obtained her PhD from the Australian National University in Canberra based in CSIRO.