Year Four students from the Department of Biological Sciences at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University visited the new insulin processing facility of the Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

This trip was part of the Biotechnology module in the degree programme in Biological Sciences, which is taught by Dr Boris Tefsen, and provided a unique opportunity to see parts of the production plant that will be inaccessible when manufacturing commences.

Two members of academic staff accompanied 17 students to the new facility in Suzhou Industrial Park, which is currently in the testing phase and will produce insulin cartridges for the Asia market.

Dr Xiaoming Wang, consultant microbiologist in the quality assurance department at Eli Lilly, is a strong proponent of such visits and has enabled similar events by other students in other parts of the world where she has previously worked.

She is very enthusiastic about these interactions:

“Students will have the chance to see what is going on in the real world and see how the knowledge they acquired at XJTLU can be applied in a pharmaceutical company,” she said.

The on-site visit consisted of three sessions. First, a seminar about Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient manufacturing was given by Dr Wang, who described the entire process of pharmaceutical drug production, from functionality testing and production to purification.

Next, Ahmed Tarek, Senior Manager of the Technical Service & Material Science Department, which is responsible for sterility assurance, explained how his team members ensure that the products provided to patients have the highest possible probability of being sterile and have the required quality.

Dr David Chiu, a new member of academic staff in the Department of Biological Sciences who participated in the visit and who has experience working in start-up biotechnology companies, commented that the facility was “a real eye-opener” to him and “incomparable” to his previous experiences.

“The maintenance measures required to ensure clean room conditions across the entire facility are just jaw dropping,” said Dr Chiu.

The final part of the visit consisted of a tour through the facility, which required all students to wear protective clothing (hairnet, gloves, safety shoes and goggles), and was accompanied by explanations from qualified personnel.

Student Yuewei Xu was excited about the site visit:

"The trip was both enjoyable and informative,” he said. “I learnt a lot about what happens in a pharmaceutical company of this scale. The tour of the factory showed me another possibility for my future career."

Dr Tefsen commented that the visit was not the only chance for students to interact with experts from the pharmaceutical industry, as he has two guest lectures planned for the remaining weeks of the Biotechnology module.

“The contents of this module are not only about the theory behind biotechnology, but just as much emphasis is laid on ethical, regulatory and economic aspects,” he said.

"The interaction with guest lecturers working in industry and the site visit to the Eli Lilly facility therefore fit perfectly in the scope and learning outcomes of this module”.

Such site visits also help students to consider pharmaceutical drug manufacturing as a possible career option. As with several other major drug companies, Eli Lilly encourages XJTLU students to learn even more by working with them via an internship programme.

The company, which was founded in 1876, sells its products to around 125 countries and last year had a net income of US$2.73 billion.

Photography was forbidden inside the facility, due to the sensitivity of the company’s intellectual property.

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