WORCESTER, Mass. — Clad in white coats and purple gloves, a gaggle of employees from biotech giants Genzyme and Shire puzzled over a gleaming labyrinth of pipes, tubes, and valves.
They had all trekked out here, an hour’s drive west of Boston, for a five-day crash course in the complex batching processes required to make today’s hottest drugs.
Drug companies, universities, and governments are counting on such courses to build a workforce savvy and experienced enough to keep up with the boom in biologic drugs, which are made inside microbes or living plant or animal cells — and are far more complicated to manufacture than a standard chemical formulation like aspirin.
Biologic drugs can fight disease in ways that traditional drugs can’t, which has made them increasingly valuable. Blockbusters include the rheumatoid arthritis drug marketed as Humira by AbbVie or the cancer drug sold as Rituxan by Genentech and Biogen.
But developing biologics comes at a cost: They take longer to develop than traditional medicines and they’re often more expensive and difficult to make. Quality control is essential because even tiny changes in the manufacturing process can alter the final product — and one super-sized bioreactor can hold millions of dollars worth of medication in a single batch.
All that has raised the stakes for companies to build a highly trained workforce.
In response, huge classrooms set up to resemble a biologics manufacturing plant have sprung up around the country in the past decade, often funded in part by state or federal agencies. There’s a well-regarded one at North Carolina State University and another at Texas A&M.
And then there’s the Biomanufacturing Education and Training Center here at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It opened with the help of state funding in 2013.
The training can be pricey — a recent five-day course cost $4,750 per student — but employers often pay the bill to boost the skills of their existing engineers, technicians, and operators. (In the last fiscal year, the BETC trained employees from 31 companies including Biogen, Novartis, and Pfizer.).
Other training classes offered at the BETC cater to relative newbies or college students hoping to impress future employers.
“We’re looking for things like that on somebody’s resume,” said Joanne Beck, who leads pharmaceutical development at Shire.
Nationwide, there are about 30,000 jobs in biopharma manufacturing of biological products, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And there are plenty new jobs to be found: Employers across the country post online ads for several thousand open jobs a month in biopharma manufacturing for biological products, according to Carlyle Conlan, a North Carolina-based executive search firm.
There aren’t any official statistics on salaries by experience level. But Beck estimated that, across the industry, new hires with just a high school diploma can make $15 to $17 per hour in biomanufacturing, with the potential to double or triple that hourly pay over time. New hires with college degrees often start out in the mid-$20s per hour and climb even higher.
“I’ve worked with people who have high school diplomas and who don’t have a two-year community college degree, and they’re making $80,000 to $120,000 a year,” Beck said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
The field is so hot, MIT has even offered a free course through the online learning platform edX focused on biologics manufacturing. It’s funded in part by the Amgen Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the biotech titan. About 11,000 students from around the world enrolled in the first two sections, which were offered last summer and fall, and nearly 1,100 earned a certificate for completing the course.
“People want to know about it, they want to learn about it, and they want to be able to work in this industry,” said instructor Stacy Springs, director of the biomanufacturing program at MIT’s Center for Biomedical Innovation.
At the recent BETC course, students from Genzyme and Shire took a spin through just about every step of the “upstream” biomanufacturing process: Cleaning vessels so they’re ready to combine, mix, and filter a gunk of nutrients and water. Moving that media to a small bioreactor where it’s conditioned, gassed, and readied to receive cells. Inoculating the bioreactor with growing cells. Moving the batch to the bigger, hulking bioreactors. Stressing the cells to produce the protein that will be purified in the “downstream” side of the process to become the biologic drug.
Even if they don’t do it in their daily work, “it is good for them to know how to start a frozen stock and put it into a benchtop bioreactor,” said Kamal Rashid, director of the BETC.
That notion wasn’t lost on the students, who went through a mix of lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on exercises.
“Here, I’m able to get more into the whys of how things work,” said Jonathan Hall, 33, a former plumber who now works at Shire on a team that makes vials for cells used in biologics manufacturing.
Hall made the switch to biotech after his business dried up during the recession. Now more than six years into his new career, he jumped at the chance to take the BETC course when his employer offered it in the hope that it will help him get new opportunities at work.
Jillian Willard, a 33-year-old process engineer at Genzyme, asked her supervisor for permission to take the course after she heard about it independently. “It would put me in a better position to maybe manage somebody that’s working on the cell culture end,” she said, “and to try to understand at least a little a bit of what they’re doing.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly conveyed information in a quote by Joanne Beck.