Focus on research: Dr Steven Ferguson, SSPC
23 July 2019 | 0
Dr Steven Ferguson is an assistant professor at UCD’s school of chemical & bioprocess engineering and a funded investigator with SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for pharmaceuticals. In this interview he talks about the challenges of developing new drugs, the benefits of working across industry and academia, and how chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hands.
You’ve moved around from Ireland to the US, from academia to industry and back again.
It is fair to say I have moved a lot to end up in the same location. I started in UCD as an undergraduate in chemical & bioprocess engineering and stayed there to do my PhD, where I am now working as an assistant professor.
Following my PhD, I moved to Boston where I was a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, working on the development of continuous manufacturing technologies to intensify pharmaceutical production.
The idea is to develop factories that would be the size of a room or in some cases tabletop scale that would still be capable of regional or global supply of medicines within hours or possibly minutes, in place of large batch chemical facilities and long supply chains currently used.
To the best of my knowledge, I was the first person to work in this specific area in Ireland during my PhD in UCD, when SSPC was in its first incarnation. The development of technology for continuous pharmaceutical manufacturing has since become a key topic.
These approaches are now transitioning to commercial applications, for example the construction of a facility in Kinsale by Eli Lilly.
After MIT I moved across the street to the other side of Kendall square, to work on drug development in Biogen, a large biopharmaceutical company. This role focused on the development and commercialisation of drugs for neurological and immunological conditions and was part of what would be considered a very small team within the industry to bring drug candidates from discovery through trials, to commercialisation. The job was a crash course in drug development and one that I was very fortunate to get.
This was brilliant vantage point, particularly with my previous background to see where technological gaps and opportunities for innovation existed in commercialisation, manufacturing and formulation of drugs.
In my current research group we are developing multidisciplinary approaches and technologies informed by my experience. This would differ from the ‘traditional’ path of the single expert working in a narrow field of science or engineering.
Your work falls under SSPC’s strand looking at crystal growth and design. Can you explain what this is and why the public should care?
Crystal growth and design is a key part of the process of developing and making drugs with many applications.
Materials from drugs, fertilisers commodity chemicals, explosives, food, and semiconductors are utilised as crystalline solids either directly or within a wide variety of technologies. A common example is ensuring chocolate has the correct crystal structure so that it melts in your mouth and not at room temperature. Similarly, we want to make drugs with crystal structures so that they dissolve and can be absorbed in your stomach and intestines and therefore be active in the body.
In spite of the importance of crystallisation in variety of industries, our understanding and ability to rationally design and produce crystals has been extremely limited. Typically, we have made crystals, crystallisation processes and testing by trial and error to figure out how a specific crystal or solid form of a material performs.
Neither crystal structures, crystal properties nor the best process to produce a desired type of crystalline material have been possible to predict. This is changing rapidly with crystallisation moving from what was more art than science to more rigorous quantitative, empirical and computational approaches.
SSPC has developed world-leading expertise in the design and production of crystalline drugs. This is of particular significance in Ireland where the manufacturing of high-value drugs and medical goods contributes up to one third of total exports.
What are the main challenges you have found in your work to date?
Each of the roles I have worked in has had unique challenges and opportunities. Learning to work on open-ended research problems with no obvious solution or deciding what problems are worth working on is challenging work. In my opinion, the required skillset can only be developed by gaining experience in R&D.
In my current role as an assistant professor in UCD, teaching is also at the forefront of my thinking and is certainly a unique challenge. Engineering lectures can be like a cross between an important work presentation and a maths exam taken in front of a large number of people, most days of the week for most of the year.
While the development of technology and research is an important part of the mission for Universities, distilling and teaching this knowledge to the next generation of scientist and engineers is critical particularly in a small country like Ireland, where training biopharmaceutical engineers to facilitate the rapid and on-going expansion of the biopharmaceutical sector. This has been a focus for my school in recent years.
You recently participated in a panel discussion at SSPC’s showcase on the almuni experience. How would you describe yours?
I have had had a good career to date in an interesting field and am very grateful that the funding provided through previous iterations of SSPC enabled me to do a PhD and get the training I needed.
The centre provided me with access to a wide range of academics and fields of expertise, which added to my research and PhD programme in an education and training capacity.
In addition, the close interaction with the pharmaceutical industry enabled me to build a significant network of contacts in Ireland and internationally which has been extremely valuable for developing research collaborations.
Which areas of future research do you find most promising/exciting?
Gene therapy, chemical biology and synthetic biology are incredibly exciting fields in terms of being able to treat diseases and improve quality of life but also to use biological systems outside of medical applications with the level of precision we do with mechanical and electronic systems to solve major issues facing to world.
We are currently working on a number aspects of therapeutic gene therapies and technologies to deliver these agents at an upcoming SFI-funded centre for doctoral training that SSPC is running in collaboration with the University of Nottingham and University College London.