Cell and gene therapy has made huge strides in the last decade but the sector’s rapid growth has outpaced the supply of a skilled workforce. Can VR bridge the gap?
The field of cell and gene therapy has witnessed remarkable success in the last decade, transforming early scientific breakthroughs into potentially curative treatments.
With advancements in genetics and cellular therapies have come promising new drugs with the potential to treat certain genetic disorders and cancers that have not responded to conventional therapies.
Drugs discovered on a lab bench in a university 10 years ago are now completing clinical trials and demonstrating that they can not just treat symptoms, but cure diseases.
However, these advancements present a significant challenge; a shortage of skilled professionals to meet the demands of an evolving sector.
The skills gap is a pressing issue exacerbated by a field that is continuing to develop at a rapid pace.
A legacy education system that is failing to keep up
Traditional training methods in pharmaceutical manufacturing have lagged behind new and evolving sectors like cell and gene therapy.
The same is true in the higher education system.
Students leave university with a strong theoretical knowledge, but the limitations of lectures, exams and report-based assessments mean graduates fall short when it comes to the hands-on skills needed to develop and manufacture new drugs.
Dr Ivan Wall, professor in regenerative medicine at Birmingham University, notes that the reliance on outdated teaching approaches has hindered the preparedness of graduates for industry roles.
“We train people using tools that we’ve been using for 200 years,” Dr Wall said.
“It doesn’t necessarily get them prepared for the jobs that we want them to do.”
“We’re still using legacy tools,” he added. “We’re not examining how well they did something or how effectively they were able to work within the lab.
“It’s about that hands-on element and most of these jobs are hands-on.”
The shortage of skilled personnel has emerged as a critical barrier, restricting the further development and widespread adoption of new life-changing therapies.
As companies seek to rapidly scale up their operations and hire large volumes of professionals with expertise in this cutting-edge field, new solutions are urgently needed to bridge the gap between education and industry.
Could VR be the solution?
VR and mixed reality could hold the key to addressing these challenges.
Just as how pilots take to the controls in VR simulators before taking their first flight, similar technologies are a promising solution to provide immersive and realistic training experiences for drug developers.
This approach has been utilised already in the field of surgical training.
Elsewhere in the healthcare space, VR is being used by radiographers to improve the interpretation of medical imaging, in psychological therapy to create immersive environments for exposure therapy and in patient education.
The adoption of VR is on the rise in life sciences, but there are still a host of possible areas that could benefit from the tech.
Cell and gene therapy is just one of them.
“Life sciences is, in particular, an area where it might be lagging in terms of technology adoption. It was about time to start bringing those types of technology into the sector,” Dr Wall said.
By simulating environments such as GMP facilities and research laboratories, trainees in pharmaceutical manufacturing can interact with virtual equipment and perform tasks without the risk of damaging expensive machinery or wasting resources.
Dr Wall is a key figure in the emerging field of VR medical training as CEO of the immersive technology company, FourPlus, a position he holds alongside his role at the University of Birmingham.
“My background was in training people and I had the realisation that in education, we probably were not doing our job as well as we could,” Dr Wall said.
Bringing VR into the equation opens up the potential for bridging the skills gap by training larger cohorts of new employees, while also having a “huge impact” on how students are taught in a university setting.
“VR is going to transform, particularly in education, how students are trained,” Dr Wall said.
“It’s also going to help to increase that funnel of bringing people into relevant jobs.
“We might have moved from the chalkboard to the PowerPoint slide, but it’s still the same format of teaching.
“In terms of what we can do with VR, I think we’re going to have a huge impact on how students are taught and assessed because teachers will be able to measure and monitor elements of skills development that they can’t currently do.”
FourPlus is spearheading the development of a next-generation approach that employs VR and multiplayer technology.
Dr Wall said:
“We already know that VR is a powerful way to support the training of new sector employees, as it reduces cost, time, facility use and waste production.
“This project will deliver the next-generation solution that integrates mixed reality, training customisation, multi-user interactivity, data analytics and training support features.”
The company, in collaboration with the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, has embarked on a new project funded by Innovate UK.
Their aim is to develop a mixed reality training platform that harnesses the power of virtual reality (VR) to transform the training of students and early-career professionals.
This ambitious project, with a total investment of £1 million, will leverage VR and mixed reality technologies to create an automated training platform.
The platform aims to address the specific training requirements of various roles within the cell and gene therapy, biopharmaceutical and wider life science sectors.
The result could be an accelerated onboarding process, a better-equipped workforce and reduced costs for businesses.
FourPlus aims to launch its minimal viable product by Spring 2024, with a full first version to follow in quarter three of the same year.
A third collaborator on the project, Holosphere, is bringing networked co-localisation technology to the platform which aims to foster collaboration within the virtual training environments.
Students can train independently within the platform while connecting with each other.
Meanwhile, the trainer can observe and asses a whole cohort of students who are each working individually in the same experience.
Trainees can be working in the same location or across multiple different sites.
This allows for standardisation and consistency in training delivery regardless of location.
“The trainer can be present with them and other trainees can be present within the experience as well,” Dr Wall said.
“So even though they’re in a virtual world, they can have the feeling being in a group [and] training together.”
Curbing the financial and environmental impact
Aside from bridging the skills gap, the new approach also has the potential to mitigate the environmental impact of traditional training methods.
In the past, pharmaceuticals were produced in large stainless steel tanks, but with modern medicines – cell and gene therapy in particular – manufacturers are working with much smaller batch sizes.
So instead of using steel, manufacturers now use smaller single-use plastic bags to produce the therapy.
These pharmaceutical-grade sacks are a far cry from your standard supermarket carrier bag. One alone can cost as much as £10,000 and can take up to 12 months to be delivered.
As the materials are incinerated after use, this waste comes not only with financial implications but an environmental impact, too.
With VR simulations, however, trainees can learn and practice procedures without the need for physical materials, reducing the consumption of single-use plastics and minimising waste streams.
“You can train them in VR to use the plastic bag,” Dr Wall said. “That’s one plastic bag that we save.
“When you’re training thousands of people, that’s thousands of plastic bags. We can save a hell of a lot in terms of the environment.”
Rethinking medical education
The application of VR extends beyond the training of professionals in cell and gene therapy. Its potential spans across various healthcare disciplines, including pharmacy, nursing and surgical training.
The hands-on experiences and replication of real-life scenarios could change the way in which education is delivered, with critical skills being assessed on practical tasks in a virtual lab rather than in the exam hall.
Dr Wall believes this will better prepare students for the practical challenges they will face in their future careers.
Rather than assess skills based on a written report of lab work, educators can instead assess students in real time within the virtual environment.
Data analytics could add a further layer of sophistication by capturing accurate insights into trainees’ competency.
“We can start to gain insight by pulling out data on how people interact with equipment and how much they’re concentrating,” Dr Wall said.
“Whether they’re actually looking at the piece of equipment when they’re doing the operation or not. We can provide scores on that.
“We can also provide scores on how quickly people can navigate through that particular [standard operating procedure].
“We can then start to make correlations with competence within the real facility.”
The dated methods used in universities today are a natural consequence of limited resources and safety considerations.
But as technologies like VR enter into a new era of sophistication, digital tools are beginning to offer a safe and controlled space for trainees to learn, make mistakes and develop in-demand, practical skills.
This could see a transformative shift in medical education from primarily theoretical to a more vocational approach.
Industries like cell and gene therapy manufacturing are among the sectors that would reap the greatest benefits.
“For cell and gene therapy, in particular, no two therapies are the same. There’s a real challenge there in making sure we’ve got a very skilled workforce.
“VR is a good stepping stone for students so that they can go into a real facility and actually be able to work with more confidence and competence.”