The key to plugging CGT talent gaps? Tell kids ‘science is cool’

Industry must help the next generation embrace science if we are to overcome the lack of talent in the cell and gene therapy sector, say experts.

The lack of qualified staff in the life sciences space is well documented, with the cell and gene therapy particularly affected. A McKinsey & Company blog post last year highlighted the issues, as did the Advanced Therapies Week event in Miami, Florida earlier this year, where conversations around the blossoming industry suggested the sector was close to reaching an inflection point when demand outstrips supply.

“There will be scarcity of talent going forward,” Jörg Schneider, principal consultant at consultancy firm Biopharma Excellence said during a panel discussion.

Image: Depositphotos.com/SvetaOrlova

He referenced the thousands of therapies in the clinic and the need for qualified staff to support them across all functions, culminating in the US FDA’s Office of Therapeutic Products (formerly OTAT, or the Office of Tissues and Advanced Therapies) plan to hire over 100 staff to deal with the deluge of submissions. And beyond the clinical push, the sector is feeling the strain of an aging life sciences workforce and workforce exits.

“We need to move people from other areas, and then to get them getting interested in [cell and gene],” he said. But to keep the sector sustainable in the longer term, there is a need to spark interest in the sector among the younger generation, he added.

Cynthia Pussinen, former CTO of Spark Therapeutics, agreed industry must start looking to grow the next generations. “Science is really cool, so we’ve got to start getting our younger kids from eight or nine really interested in it.”

She referenced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs targeted at children. “Scientists would come into all these different demonstrations, and the kids would actually do it – they’d make slime, make dry ice, just to get them really excited about it. We need to do more things like that.”

Big Pharma firm Pfizer has led a Science Jamboree in previous years, while life sciences services firm Thermo Fisher has a program that sees scientists visit schools in Lithuania in a mobile laboratory.

Pussinen did note, however, “these are young school aged children, obviously, so that’s going to take a while before they’re in the pipeline of talent.”

Older children should also be encouraged not to lose interest in STEM, David Barrett, CEO, American Society for Gene and Cell Therapies (ASGCT) added.

“We had an opportunity last summer to to try something very different, was actually program that came out of our Diversity Equity and Inclusion committee on how we can overcome the sort of gap in the drop off and interest in STEM in high school. We partnered with Milwaukee Public School District to bring teachers in and teach them a number of science experiments […] and start to make a little bit of an imprint on early science education with the thought that this might be a fun thing to do.

He continued: “We’ll see where it goes […] but yeah, we’ve got to get more creative with building awareness.”

Mentorship programs with colleges and schools were also cited as further drivers for the uptake of talent in the CGT space – something Susan Nichols, chief business officer at ViroCell Biologics, was a keen advocate of.

“So part of that, I feel, is an obligation because if we want the talent, we have to be part of the solution.”