Our lives changed in 2020 in a way no one could have imagined as we faced a world-wide pandemic. On both a global and local scale, the impact has been significant to health, society and the economy for all segments of the population.
For many in the Life Sciences sector, business continued to operate as labs had to remain open to maintain work on critical projects. Facilities were adapted to meet new restrictions and some companies diversified operations. Collaboration remained key to helping in the fight against this global challenge.
Covid-19 has been a catalyst for growth for the UK Life Sciences industry with work on vaccines, testing and research into the virus. The industry has also seen an increase in investment including dedicated funds for life sciences early-stage funding. In many ways it has been very Dickensian “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times….”
Midlothian Science Zone (MSZ), set against the backdrop of the Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh, is a unique cluster of science parks and research institutes, a centre of excellence where a dynamic community continued to demonstrate its strengths and expertise.
Vacant desks, offices and meeting space may have been apparent over the past months, however research and business across the zone remained open for essential workers, operating within Government guidelines and following strict procedures to ensure a safe place to work for all.
The services of many tenant companies are crucial for the pharmaceutical supply chain as well as Covid related drugs and testing. Businesses such as Almac Sciences and Cambrex, with facilities on Edinburgh Technopole, continued throughout the pandemic to deliver pharmaceutical solutions to their clients.
Research and innovation in the zone over the past year has been incredible. From the outset, the dedication and expertise of researchers and scientists at the Roslin Institute, most notably Dr Kenneth Baillie, have played a key role in a collaborated global effort to understand this virus and its origins, and to develop therapies to control the spread and discover treatments.
Partnerships have been crucial in the race for the vaccine. Ingenza Ltd, a leading biotechnology company based at Roslin Innovation Centre, applied its proprietary “visABLE” biomanufacturing platform in a recombinant bioprocess to accelerate development and testing of a COVID-19 vaccine, work is in collaboration with the University of Oxford.
Universities and academic institutions, including The University of Edinburgh and its Midlothian-based Easter Bush Campus, have collaborated extensively, investigating the impact and links to pre-existing health conditions such as obesity, treatment pathways, antiviral therapies, repurposing of existing drugs, gene studies and vaccine strategies.
Online tracking models to visualise the progress of the outbreak; prediction of the second wave over the winter and its impact and burden on health resources; mathematical models to predict droplet migration and infection spread, as well as a study on the risk of spread through contact with human waste, were all conducted on Campus.
Innovation is at the forefront of scientific research. The Data Driven Innovation programme which has a hub at Easter Bush Campus, has allocated funds for several Covid related projects in collaboration with global and local partners.
After the initial outbreak in March/April 2020, there was a huge strain on resources at NHS hospitals. The impact and results of cumulative efforts in the zone have been far reaching. The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies repurposed ventilators and loaned these to NHS Lothian and supplied surgical masks from stocks to a Glasgow Hospital.
When Matt Hancock made a plea for help to complete 100,000 Covid tests by the end of April 2020, Roslin Innovation Centre based Censo Biotechnologies (now an Axol Bioscience company), responded by repurposing labs in the ‘Research Hotel’ space to complete 15,000 tests per month – the first Scottish lab to offer same day testing free for health professionals.
Similarly, Biobest Laboratories on Edinburgh Technopole had a government contract with the NHS and performed testing for six months. What is impressive is that companies involved with Covid testing, support or research have operated these activities in addition to their regular business operations.
Moredun Research Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) worked together to support the NHS, providing extra capacity for vital testing of samples within their laboratory facilities on Pentlands Science Park. The Chief Veterinary Officer Scotland commented that this is an example of “One Health in Action” and together with NHS Scotland/NHS Lothian this collaboration effort was shortlisted in the Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards 2021 category ‘Covid-19 Collaborative Response’.
SRUC is also contributing to the endeavour to combat the virus as part of a rapid research initiative into quantitative epidemiology of Covid-19 in Rural Scotland.
Edinburgh Genetics secured space on Pentlands Science Park to work on Covid antigen rapid testing also donated Covid testing kits to an Autism charity. The company has since expanded, leasing additional space on the science park.
The talent and expertise ingrained in businesses across the zone is evident as they continue to operate during what is exceptional circumstances, to perform and provide solutions. Quotient, headquartered in Switzerland and with extensive lab space on BioCampus is using their history and expertise in transfusion diagnostics for antibody testing with impressive statistics producing a 99.8% accuracy in 35 minutes at a capacity of 3,000 per day.
It is hard to imagine that in early 2020 few people owned a facemask, now they are in every pocket or bag. The efficiency of these varies and collaborative research including Roslin Institute’s Virology Department studied the effectiveness of different types of facemask, from medical to handmade, against spreading the disease. A team from Roslin Institute investigated the most effective materials for customised 3D facemasks and visors for frontline healthcare workers which are sustainable and prevent contamination .
This is only a glimpse of the expertise, flexibility and resources which business within Midlothian Science Zone have demonstrated, while delivering on ongoing projects and partnerships. The community rose to the challenges of 2020 and into 2021 demonstrating resilience, collaboration and innovation, with several companies working collaboratively on COVID-19 related projects, gaining recognition for individual and company achievements.
The future is looking brighter – we look forward to continued collaborations, business growth, research breakthroughs and recognition for the talent and expertise in the zone, and in contributing to the growth of the sector in Scotland and beyond.
Emma McCallum, Project Coordinator, Midlothian Science Zone