Scientific talent in Ireland needs to be backed by investment

Global biopharma giant AbbVie is backing two new multimillion projects here

Dr Jim Sullivan, vice-president of pharmaceutical discovery at AbbVie: “It is important in basic research to have the talent working well together.” Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Dr Jim Sullivan, vice-president of pharmaceutical discovery at AbbVie: “It is important in basic research to have the talent working well together.” Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times


Ireland’s got talent in scientific research, but we need to keep investing it to attract even more. That’s according to Dr Jim Sullivan of global biopharmaceutical company AbbVie, which is embarking on two new collaborations with Irish research groups.

The collaborations with Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute in Dublin and the APC Microbiome Institute in Cork will see AbbVie work with researchers on disease markers and potential new drug targets for conditions such as Crohn’s disease and psoriasis.

“In certain areas of research like immunology and nanoscience, Ireland is right at the top in terms of the quality of research and the quality of researchers,” says Sullivan, who grew up in Meath and who studied to PhD level at Trinity College Dublin. “That is really important, because talent attracts talent.”

But to sustain that quality, it is important to keep up the investment in science, technology and innovation, he says. “Those investments can then have more impact, as one will see even more research opportunities move to Ireland with continued investment.”

Sullivan, who was at the recent Global Irish Economic Forum, is vice-president, of pharmaceutical discovery at AbbVie, a Chicago-headquartered global research-based biopharmaceutical company.

The company, which was formed in 2013 after its separation from Abbott, is focusing on several areas to develop new treatments, including immunology, virology, cancer and neurology and neuroscience, where Sullivan sees conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease as a “looming tsunami” for patients, caregivers and healthcare systems.

Its five sites in Ireland include two manufacturing plants in Sligo and one in Cork.

“Ireland is a very important component of AbbVie’s overall strategy,” says Sullivan. “Those manufacturing facilities play an absolutely critical role in the development of our pipeline as well as our commercial products, and we are continuing to invest substantially in those facilities here in Ireland.”

New collaborations

Sullivan commends Ireland’s investment in building skills to enable the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry and points to the nuances of the field.

“When you think about making complex chemicals at a size and scale that a patient can take in a pill that is a reasonable size, that is complex science [that needs] skills in chemistry and process engineering and scaling up that chemistry,” he says.

The new research collaborations announced last month represent a joint investment of €10 million by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), and they will now link AbbVie into academic centres.

They focus on the biology of the immune system, which has a say in health and disease.

“The immune system plays a very important role in protecting our bodies from infection with viruses and bacteria. However, when the immune system is out of control then instead of protecting us it can start to attack organs and tissues of the body, so the joints, the gut, the skin,” Sullivan says.

“We are looking to come up with much more effective therapeutics and to do that you need to understand diseases like Crohn’s disease and the basic biology much better.”

One collaboration is with the APC Microbiome Institute in Cork, led by Prof Fergus Shanahan, which explores the biology of gut health and the trillions of microbes that call our intestines home. That will get investment to the tune of €7.5 million from SFI together with AbbVie over five years and will support 11 new research positions at the APC.

Effective therapeutics

The other collaboration is with researchers led by Prof Kingston Mills at the TBSI in Trinity and aims to find biomarkers and drug targets for autoimmune and other immune-mediated diseases. That research will get €2.5 million in funding from SFI and AbbVie over the next three years and will support four new research positions.

“There are particular pathways in the immune system that we are interested in understanding better, because we believe that basic biology understanding will lead to more effective therapeutics,” says Sullivan, though he notes that it will take time and involve several steps, including better understanding the disease and moving the findings to clinical testing and then ultimately to the marketplace.

Sullivan is keen on the idea of linking talented researchers around themes.

“It is important in basic research to have the talent working well together,” he says. “So as much as possible where you can bring immunology experts or cancer experts together to collaborate very closely then there is the force multiplier effect of having a really large group of experts and companies which will be very attracted to interacting with those.” What’s new in . . . Biotechnology and medicine What exciting new technologies are bubbling up in the general world of biology and medicine? We asked Dr Jim Sullivan, AbbVie’s vice-president of pharmaceutical discovery, what has caught his attention.

Cell-based therapies “Certainly the emergence of cell-based therapies and the application of cell-based therapies to diseases like cancer in particular has a very significant potential.”

Low-cost gene sequencing “If we look back 15 years the first human genome was sequenced at a cost of over $1 billion. Now we are starting to see the cost of sequencing a human genome approach $1,000, so our ability to contemplate sequencing of entire populations and understand the genetic defects that are contributing to or protecting from various diseases is tremendously exciting, and I think is something that will revolutionise the way we do drug-discovery.”

Gene-editing technologies “When you think about the power of being able to go in and correct molecular defects in genes that we know to be causing diseases, I think that is a tremendously exciting area.”