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The Stem that supports life sciences in Ireland

Highly-qualified graduates in science, engineering, technology and maths are vital to sustaining the industry here

“Pharmaceutical products account for 60 per cent of Irish exports and over 60,000 people are working in the sector.” Photograph: iStock

“Pharmaceutical products account for 60 per cent of Irish exports and over 60,000 people are working in the sector.” Photograph: iStock

 

Science, engineering, technology and maths is a vital pillar of Ireland’s economy: take it away and the edifice could crumble. And within Stem, the life sciences form much of the concrete – but what exactly are they?

“Life sciences are the sciences that deal with living systems – people, animals, plants, and things that interact with those living systems – pharmaceuticals, medical devices and technologies,” says Denise Croker, executive director at SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for pharmaceuticals. “The term pharmaceuticals broadly captures all medicines and medicinal products – tablets, capsules, injections, vaccines and creams.”

Life sciences in general, and pharmaceuticals in particular, are hugely important to Ireland. “Pharmaceutical products account for 60 per cent of Irish exports and over 60,000 people are working in the sector,” says Croker. “In the last ten years, the sector has invested over €10 billion in new facilities around Ireland. Some examples include Regeneron in Limerick, WuXi Pharmaceuticals in Dundalk, BMS in Cruiserath and MSD in Swords. These companies offer an employment route for highly qualified candidates to work in Ireland and provide SSPC graduates with excellent opportunities to progress their careers.”

To sustain the industry in Ireland, a flow of quality graduates is necessary. Susan Hynes is vice-president and site lead at Takeda Dunboyne Biologics, which hired about 70 graduates from Irish third-levels this year. “There is a high standard of science education in Ireland, yes, but Irish higher education gives graduates a rounded education which in turn supports Ireland as a location for industry,” she says.

Takeda provides a scholarship for UCD’s masters in biochemical engineering, while graduates on its programme have worked at the biotechnology facility in the National Institute for Bioprocess Research and Training (NIBERT), located on the University College Dublin campus.

SSPC works with pharmaceutical companies to research how pharmaceutical products are made, says Croker. “The aim of our research is to develop better ways of more effective medicines faster and more efficiently. Through our research we train postgraduate scientists and engineers with the skills they need to move to industry and continue improving the processes and products made there. SSPC works with over 25 pharmaceutical companies in Ireland and also has international links with companies in the UK, Europe and the US. To date, 200 students and postdoctorate researchers have emerged from SSPC and we have a 100 per cent employment rate with approximately 60 per cent of our trainees transitioning to industry.”

‘All about innovation’

“For us, the life sciences are all about innovation,” says Hynes. “And, as an industry, we have to be innovation-focused. We don’t see limitations with science; instead, we see the pace of change and development has gotten faster and faster. Takeda is moving into the area of cell therapy and gene therapy, and there are opportunities for innovation in that area, where we will continue to focus. Our role is to make sure products are accessible to patients, especially patients with rare diseases [who form a key focus of Takeda’s work in Ireland], and we work with health authorities all over the world.”

SSPC, meanwhile, works across a wide spectrum of public audiences – schools, teachers, the general public and senior citizens – to inform and educate society about the value of science and the pharma sector.

“More broadly speaking, the pharmaceutical sector globally is constantly developing new medicines to treat existing and emerging diseases for patients,” says Croker. “The industry is innovating to bring new types of treatments for targets such as cancer. Ultimately, these innovations deliver new medicines which extend duration and quality of life for people all over the world. A case in point is the HIV epidemic, which has been virtually eliminated by access to modern medications.”

Both Hynes and Croker say identifying new medicines to help patients is a cornerstone of the life sciences industry. “With rare diseases, it is important that we can provide an accessible product to patients and that we innovate, research and develop to make it a commercial product for them. Our Dunboyne facility is innovative, flexible and able to make small batches. This is how the industry is moving and so it puts us at the cutting edge,” says Hynes.