Qasim Rafiq, PhD, associate professor in cell and gene therapy bioprocess engineering at University College London. In 2019, he launched one of the world’s first MSc programs in the commercialization of gene and cell therapies.

GEN: How is that program going?

Qasim Rafiq: It’s been phenomenally successful. 14 out of our 16 graduates secured jobs in the sector before graduating, one on the GSK’s Future Leaders graduate program, and the remaining two are going through interviews.

GEN: What was the impact of the U.K.’s COVID-19 lockdown on the course?

Rafiq: Trying to deliver a master’s program for the first time under COVID was an immense challenge, but also a great opportunity as it demonstrated a huge amount of what we deliver can be delivered remotely. Our master’s is a full-time one-year course, and we’re now thinking about creating a part-time two-year program [that can be delivered remotely].

GEN: I recently interviewed Jen Vanderhoven, PhD, director of the U.K.’s National Horizons Centre about the importance of upskilling the U.K. biomanufacturing workforce. Why do you feel skill development is important and what more needs to be done?

Rafiq: I’ve noticed is there’s a lot of policy focus on skills, but little in terms of delivery. The U.K. has a fantastic track record for research but, to maintain long-term value and resilience, you also need a supply chain of people, innovations, and ideas—and COVID has really highlighted this.

GEN: What else are you doing to improve the U.K.’s skill base in bioprocessing and advanced therapies?

Rafiq: We’ve just launched the Advanced Bioscience of Viral Products (ABViP), a £4.5 million training partnership between UCL, the University of Oxford and Oxford Biomedica. We’ll take on eight PhD students over the next three years to generate and produce the next generation of viral vectors for gene therapies and future vaccines which is, of course, relevant at the present time.

Qasim Rafiq, PhD, associate professor in cell and gene therapy bioprocess engineering at University College London.

Another big training activity we’ve just launched is a series of free-of-charge videos on the Advanced Therapy Skills Training Network centering on how to use bioreactor technology to support either vaccine, or cell and gene therapy manufacture. The videos include lectures and practical demonstrations, last about 10–15 minutes, and together form a curriculum.

We’ve also revamped our four-day industry training program, in consultation with stakeholders in the sector, and we’re planning to relaunch that in March 2022. The final aspect of our training is that the U.K.’s Medical Research Council and LifeArc have launched a call for gene therapy innovation hubs, which are large manufacturing hubs for generating gene therapies, and we were involved in the London bid. Our contribution was focused on the training element—how we can support and train engineers and scientists to manufacture gene therapies.