Workforce Development Program to Expand Students’ Lab Skills in Biomanufacturing
Initiative Will Help Accelerate Supply of Trained Industry Professionals
By Edwin L. Aguirre
Biomanufacturing technology, which uses biological processes and living organisms for large-scale production of molecules, proteins and cellular components used in the biopharmaceutical industry, is one of the fastest-growing life sciences sectors in Massachusetts.
According to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s 2023 Industry Snapshot, the state’s biomanufacturing workforce grew by 6.3% last year, adding 10,493 new jobs, “with California, Texas and New York all experiencing negative growth.”
To help sustain this growth and meet the projected workforce demands of industry, the Department of Chemical Engineering has embarked on a biomanufacturing workforce development program that is geared toward undergraduates.
The initiative, led by Prof. Sanjeev Manohar, was developed in partnership with industry and is supported with a two-year, $730,000 grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.
“Our goal is to expand the students’ hands-on laboratory experience in biomanufacturing to accelerate the supply of new, highly skilled industry professionals,” says Manohar.
Filling the Skills Gap
Manohar says UMass Lowell has provided the biomanufacturing industry with trained undergraduate and graduate students for more than 25 years. The focus of their training has been on the theory of cell/microbe cultivation at industrial scale, the theory of isolation and purification of drug substances, biopharmaceutical regulatory compliance and analytical development.
“What is missing from the curriculum is the fundamental hands-on lab experience to complement the current lecture courses offered in biomanufacturing,” he says.
Based on the feedback the department received from key constituents, including local industry, Manohar says they have identified three key but unmet lab skills in life sciences: cell cultivation, cell separation and cell analysis.
“Our current initiative will provide UML an excellent opportunity to deliver on these critical needs,” he says.
Cell cultivation, or cell culture, refers to a technique by which living cells from an animal or plant are grown in an artificial, controlled lab environment. Cell separation, also called cell isolation or cell sorting, is a process of identifying, separating and removing one or more specific cell populations from a complex mixture of cells. Cell analysis involves evaluating and analyzing the cells’ health, viability and proliferation.
The goal of these lab methods is to develop model systems to facilitate the study of basic cell biology, replicate the mechanisms of diseases or investigate the effectiveness or toxicity of newly developed drug compounds.
Massachusetts-based industry partners collaborating on the project include MilliporeSigma (headquartered in Burlington), National Resilience Inc. (with offices in Allston, Marlborough and Waltham) and Nova Biomedical Corp. (based in Waltham). The companies will provide input and review of the curriculum design and participate in the formation of a biomanufacturing advisory board, as well as supplying guest speakers for student seminars.
MilliporeSigma will also provide process equipment such as protein purification systems and bioreactor controllers while Nova Biomedical will provide analytical reagents and technical support for the state-of-the-art BioProfile FLEX2 automated cell culture analyzer currently housed in the Massachusetts Biomanufacturing Center’s lab at Perry Hall on North Campus.
“Our program will increase the number of students graduating with lab skills sought by the life sciences industry,” says Manohar.
He says the lab training program will also be offered for the Chemical Engineering Concentration in Bioengineering and the Graduate Certificate in Biotechnology and Bioprocessing. In addition, the program plans to establish biomanufacturing internships and co-ops to help increase recruitment of new students.
College students are not the only ones who stand to benefit from acquiring new lab experience: Manohar notes that the total number of high school students enrolled in Lowell, Lawrence, Methuen, Wilmington, Andover and several other nearby communities is approximately 80,000, and roughly half of them stated that they are interested in either “science and engineering” or “science and engineering-related” fields.
“This is an opportunity for UMass Lowell to make early inroads into this student body and motivate them toward a career in life sciences,” he says. “The one-year certificate program proposed in this initiative is a promising entry point for them.”