Comment: Cutting-edge pharma research can bring investment to Ireland

We have the potential to become Europe’s go-to destination for the development of advanced therapy medicinal products

Research being carried out in Irish labs could have profound implications for the pharmaceutical industry – and for patients’ health

Earlier this month, the US president Donald Trump vowed to bring global pharmaceutical production back to his country, and made specific reference to Ireland as he did so.

In a Fox News interview conducted in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Trump was asked how he intended to make America less dependent on China for supplies.

“It’s not only China, you take a look at Ireland,” he said. “They make our drugs. Everybody makes our drugs except us. We’re bringing that whole supply chain back. Nobody has to tell me to do it, I’ve been talking about that for years.”

The remarks put the pharma industry’s Irish presence back in the spotlight and raised questions about its future.

Much of the commentary around Ireland’s place in the pharmaceutical supply chain, however, places too much of an emphasis on production and tax efficiencies, and unfairly neglects the pioneering research conducted here.

The drive within the Irish life sciences sector to further develop advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMP) is one particularly exciting movement that does not get its fair share of attention.

A joint BioPharmaChem Ireland/Ibec strategy document for the manufacturing sector in Ireland called for urgent government funding for ATMP.

“Ireland, with the correct supports, is well positioned to be at the cutting edge of this multi-faceted groundbreaking innovation,” the report stated.

This demand for world-leading development is one of the reasons why the Health Research Board has invested in attracting top talent to Ireland and in creating a pipeline of research leaders who will improve health across a broad range of areas.

I am one of the recipients of the four-year emerging investigator award, and recently joined the School of Pharmacy at University College Cork (UCC) to research ribonucleic acid-based therapeutics for the treatment of sepsis.

This therapy, known as RNA, is an ATMP that modifies or provides ribonucleic acid to patients’ cells. My ambition is to create more effective ways of delivering this new treatment to efficiently target the diseased cells with the appropriate therapeutic RNA.

These new pharmaceuticals have been recognised globally as the next big thing in biopharma. In the last couple of years the promise of RNA therapies has started to come to fruition, spearheading a new wave of medicines.

That, in turn, has attracted a global surge in interest and investment. For example, three therapeutic companies – Moderna Therapeutics, BioNtech, and CureVac – have attracted $2.8 billion in private investment over the past five years.

In April last year Regeneron announced an $800 million investment in Alnylam, the recipient of the first US Food and Drug Administration approval for an RNA interference therapeutic.

I received my postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the labs of two outstanding academic mentors and entrepreneurs, Professor Daniel Anderson and Professor Robert Langer. They taught me about the importance of translating biomedical research, and helped develop my interest in entrepreneurship and collaboration with industry.

My goal was to work as an independent investigator in an environment that blends research, industry and business. That goal led me to Ireland and to UCC, a university that is highly engaged in the non-viral gene therapy area.

Its School of Pharmacy has an active research community pursuing the discovery of new non-viral gene therapy solutions for various diseases. This has been funded through three Science Foundation Ireland research centres and several industrial collaborations.

My research group will work on developing new RNA-based therapeutics for high-medical-need diseases that lack effective treatment. My current research will focus on sepsis, the life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by a response to infection.

Internationally, sepsis affects more than 30 million people of all ages and results in 5.3 million deaths annually. In Ireland, it kills more people than either heart attacks or cancer, and one in five patients diagnosed with sepsis will die from it.

The treatment currently consists of antibiotics, intravenous fluid replacement and supportive care. This treatment is only concerned with managing the outcome of the disease and preventing of the spread of the infection, however, it is not a cure.

We are seeking a means to change the way the disease affects a patient’s organs, rather than solely treat its symptoms.

The research findings from this study – an interdisciplinary project supported by labs in the Netherlands, the US and Korea – could also help deliver new therapeutic strategies for diseases that share similarities with sepsis, including acute kidney injury, acute respiratory distress syndrome and pulmonary artery hypertension.

This project is just one example of research being carried out in Ireland that could have profound implications for the pharmaceutical industry, providing a base for specialised training, entrepreneurial activities and industrial collaborations.

We will strive to work with companies already based in Ireland who are interested in competing in this space. But I believe the innovative research underway here will also assist in attracting more foreign direct investment to a thriving sector.

At a time when the threat of recession is ever present, it is crucial that the university research community is developed, supported and promoted further to ride the crest of this new wave of innovation and to contribute to economic recovery.

Dr Piotr Kowalski is the co-inventor of several patented RNA delivery technologies, and the co-founder of the US biotech start-up Orna Therapeutic. He is currently based in the School of Pharmacy at UCC