Nearly 90% of cell therapy firms plan to invest further into automation technologies within five years, a KNect365 survey finds.
KNect365’s Life Sciences Cell Therapy Automation Survey 2018 collated the responses of 158 life science executives and engineers. When asked to what extent companies are currently automating their process, the results ranged from 14% not using automation at all to 7% claiming all their processes are automated. This averages out to around 52% of processes being automated.
Process automation (for example closed loop process control) and task automation (selection process, for example) were cited as the most common automation technologies being used within the cell therapy space, with 67% and 38% of respondents, respectively, saying they implement these in their current processes.
Looking forward, automation clearly will play a big part when planning budgets. 20% of respondents said they will be investing further into automation technologies within the next year, while a further 39% said they would invest in the next one to two years. In total, 89% plan to expand further into automation within the next five years.
But industry must overcome the current limitations in automation highlighted in the survey. These range from problems with modular connectivity, to the inflexibility or non-adaptability of software. But the suitability of automation technology for diverse processes was by far the greatest issue, viewed by 48% of the respondents as the biggest barrier to adoption.
Translating the ‘art’ of cell therapies
Demand for automated technology is rising as industry becomes more confident in the development of cellular therapies. According to Ohad Karnieli, CEO of Atvio Biotech – a wholly-owned subsidiary of Orgenesis’ Masthercell Global CDMO – the approval of Novartis’ Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) and Gilead’s Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel) in 2017 buoyed both investors and developers in the cell therapy space.
This in turn has pushed service firms to offer up manufacturing capacity and vendors to develop solutions to help reduce costs and increase productivity, and automation technologies are a key focus.
“It is basically almost impossible to manufacture at scale to bring [cell therapies] ready to patients at a reasonable price,” he told BioProcess Insider, as part of the BPI Asia 2019 podcast series. “It’s the technology itself that is missing because the price is the outcome of that.”
He went on to describe current processes as “art,” providing one off cures but using very manual – and costly – processes.
“We need to translate this art into a manufacturing process that will, in one, reduce the price dramatically and then on the other hand, allow availability of these therapies.”
Industry therefore looks to the vendors to offer up automated tech and fix the issues highlighted by this survey.
“The vendors are very, very interested. All these big players are looking at this industry, they are looking at the advantages, they see the financial data and they really want to step in. The way that some of them attack it is through trying to develop internal solutions or to purchase available solutions,” said Karnieli.
Some examples of the latter include GE Healthcare’s acquisition of automation-supporting software firm Zenith Technologies, Sartorius’ acquisition of data analytics software firm Essen BioScience, and Thermo Fisher’s purchase of scalable control automation systems and software partner Finesse Solutions.
Atvio itself sees itself as a player between the vendors and the end-users when it comes to new technologies, Karnieli added
“We’ve been contacted by many of them [vendors] and they are basically looking at what we are doing, evaluating it and maybe one day will purchase it. Usually these vendors won’t be the first ones into market to buy these new solutions. That’s why we chose the path of working with our customers.
“The cell-therapy developers identify their needs together with our GMP experts come up with solutions and I’m quite sure that one of these big vendors will adopt these kinds of solutions because that’s practically how they do it. They look at what’s available and if there’s something good they’ll take it in and push it through the networks.”