UK Biocentre: From Scaling During COVID-19 to Supporting the Next Generation of Therapeutics

UK Biocentre is a respected leader in sample management, high-capacity bioprocessing & analysis, and automated storage. With the capacity to store 35 million individual sample, it is the main processor for many of the UK’s government genetics projects, including the ambitious Our Future Health project which aims to collect and analyse the genetic samples of 5 million residents.

We sat down with Dr Tony Cox OBE a molecular biologist and CEO of UK Biocentre to discuss the centre’s pivotal role during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they have returned to supporting ambitious biopharmaceutical projects.

“I’ve always been fascinated by DNA and the concept of information moving between generations. It blows my mind that something as simple but as complex could have arisen,” says Dr Cox.

“We have a vibrant life science sector in the UK. It’s a fantastic place to be doing genetics.”

Listen to the full interview here:

Transformation into a Lighthouse Lab

From March 2020, the centre rapidly transformed into the UK’s first and largest Lighthouse Lab, testing COVID samples.

“I got a phone call from the department to say, could we help? My view was that everybody had to step forward at that point and do what was necessary”

“It was a very intense time, but I’m very proud of how we stepped up to support the whole testing effort.  We learned as an organisation, an awful lot from that how to do scale and gain organisational confidence to do large-scale projects”

Dr Cox and his team converted the entire operation to focus on supporting COVID testing. Over the next two years, they built a large testing pipeline, processing up to 100,000 samples a day at peak requirements. In total, they conducted over 30 million tests.

At the peak of testing, UK Biocentre grew from about 50 employees to well over 1,000, operating four shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dr Cox himself lived out of a hotel room for the best part of 18 months during that time.

“It was a very intense time, but I’m very proud of what we stepped up to support that whole testing effort. We learned as an organisation an awful lot from that: how to do scale, gain organisational confidence to do large-scale projects.”

As testing wound down, the employee count dropped from over 1,000 to around 70 or 80. “Overnight, it was a very big change,” he says.

During the pandemic time, client projects were paused. “There was a controlled process whereby we worked with our customers to essentially hibernate our projects. But many of them began to start waking up and coming back online after about nine to 12 months. So by the time the COVID operation stopped, virtually all of our projects were coming back to life.”

Our Future Health

UK Biobank are a key partner to Our Future Health project, the United Kingdom’s largest ever health research programme

“It’s a huge project and very exciting,” says Tony. “It has huge aspirations to collect and engage 5 million participant volunteers in the UK, to collect both health questionnaires, biological samples and links to health data to form a very large prospective healthcare study looking at the factors, both genetic and environmental, that lead to ill health in later life.”

He believes this project has the potential to really turn the dial on helping us to understand our health risks and how to effectively manage them.

For more information read Biobanks Explained: A Guide to Biobanks for Pharmaceutical Professionals


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