What are the five trends shaping life sciences?

As new treatments are developed and technology offers greater efficiencies, there is a huge demand for STEM talent in the life sciences sector

computer screen showing DNA strand to be edited using gene editing

Five trends are shaping the future of the life sciences industry. Employers must improve what they offer to candidates or risk being left behind in the race for talent. Everything from gene editing to decentralised clinical trials are sucking in expertise and there may not be enough people with relevant skills to fill all the roles that are likely to be offered in the coming months.

Five trends shaping life sciences

  1. Gene editing
  2. Decentralised clinical trials
  3. Medical Device Regulation (MDR)
  4. Drug shortages
  5. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

These five trends are dramatically changing the face of the sector and some, like the introduction of artificial intelligence, are accelerating, leaving many companies struggling to keep up. Covid-19 also led to the rapid evolution of the life science industries and has contributed to drug shortages, leading to a rethink about the way medicines are manufactured and distributed.

New innovations require expertise in everything from medical science to regulatory affairs and a dangerous skills gap is developing. Here we’ve highlighted five trends that are fuelling the race for talent and leading to huge opportunities for STEM candidates.

Gene editing

Cell and gene therapies (CGT) give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. They are being explored in research and clinical trials for a wide range of diseases, including single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis, haemophilia and sickle cell disease. They also hold promise for the treatment and prevention of more complex illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, mental illness and HIV.

This field is facing a serious skills shortage. Professional services firm Accenture found there were significant talent shortages in courier, distribution and manufacturing firms and that R&D and operations were also badly affected. In their 2022 survey of 200 US-based CGT leaders they found that demand for talent is set to grow rapidly. In 2022, there were just 20 approved gene therapies worldwide but more than 60 are expected to be approved in the US alone by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Global Access to Gene Therapies report.

Alexandros Xenitidis, Business Manager for SThree Switzerland says manufacturers are already struggling to find enough manufacturing and supply chain expertise. He says: “Filling critical roles in a sector that is hungry for talent is challenging and successful manufacturers are already focusing on the global talent pool to give them the best chance of finding the people they need.”

Decentralised clinical trials

There’s a desperate need for talent to conduct decentralised clinical trials (DCTs). The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted clinical trials but also led to an increased use of remote technologies in healthcare as doctors sought to keep in touch with their patients. These technologies were quickly adopted to move clinical trial activity closer to patients rather than expecting them to attend trial centres. Decentralised clinical trials (DCTs) now include remote monitoring and diagnostics, home health providers, local laboratories and direct-to-patient drug distribution.

An analysis by Clinical Trials Arena found that job postings seeking people with DCT expertise increased fivefold between mid-2020 and 2022, with a record 3,258 job listings at the start of that year. The analysis showed that between 4% and 10% of all pharma and contract research organisation vacancies related to decentralised clinical trials, with the highest share of vacancies found in New Zealand. Clinical Trails Arena identified openings in everything from technology, data management and direct-to-patient drug deliveries to nursing. This is leading to huge opportunities for candidates as employers scramble to attract the people they need to carry out trials effectively.

Medical Device Regulation (MDR)

Medical devices are crucial to our quality of life. They range from simple contact lenses and sticking plasters to pacemakers and hip replacements. Despite their importance, however, tightening regulations to ensure the quality of these devices is fuelling demand for regulatory affairs and quality assurance professionals.

In the European Union, the new EU Medical Devices Regulation (MDR) has been designed to update rules on the safety and performance of the devices that were first harmonised across the continent in the 1990s. This regulation introduces changes such as enhanced safety and performance requirements, technical documentation, and clinical data and evaluation requirements. However, the EU has recently decided to extend the transition for certification of these devices because of a serious shortage of capacity among the ‘notified bodies’ tasked with carrying out the work and to give companies additional time to comply.

Currently, companies don’t have enough experts to prepare for MDR and budgets are being squeezed. The choice for companies is slim, they either need to up their budget to bring in the skills required or bring consultants on board to support their current teams. This is all while the need for auditors to assess compliance becomes more apparent to meet the next deadline date of 26 May 2024.

Drug shortages

The aftermath of Covid-19 and supply chain shortages caused by geo-political unease, such as the war in Ukraine, have led to global shortages of well-known medicines such as antibiotics, HRT treatments and ADHD drugs. Manufacturers are responding by creating smart manufacturing facilities, making greater use of data and redesigning supply chains.

At the same time, they have to maintain and update existing factories to meet the demands of evolving legislation. It means there is a growing demand for manufacturing expertise and roles in everything from laboratory practice, regulatory affairs and quality control to engineering and automation. Soaring demand is leading to rapidly rising salaries and companies will need to wake up to the need to pay more to attract the people they need.

Xenitidis explains: “Because demand for talent is so competitive some companies have not kept up to date with the rapid rise in pay in the sector and are not offering the competitive salaries that the candidate-driven market is dictating.”

Artificial intelligence

AI can assist in predicting the outcomes of clinical trials and potential side effects of new drugs as well as analysing imagery to detect early warning signs of disease in X-rays or MRI scans. It has been used successfully to detect and treat neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

AI-aligned technologies are already embedded within healthcare, including computer vision, natural language processing, and pattern recognition algorithms. The UK’s National Health Service recently rolled out a new AI tool that can detect heart disease in just 20 seconds – a process that would take a doctor 13 minutes on average.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning tools could save between £200 billion and $360 billion in healthcare spending through greater efficiency in the US alone, according to a new report from McKinsey and Harvard. This is likely to lead to a rapid increase in demand for AI skills in the sector in the coming years.

The life sciences sector is experiencing a boom as a result of its role in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. Around the world employers are looking for talent. R&D, tech, regulation, remote care and efficient manufacturing will be essential if the sector is to reach its full potential in the coming months and years. But companies at the forefront of these exciting areas will need to find people with the skills to tackle them – that won’t be an easy task in a recruitment market where everyone is looking for the same expertise.

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