Inside look at the BioExperience tour
I’ve never been very good at chemistry. I actually do pretty well with math and science, in general, (even though I opted to stick with the humanities) but once you start talking about nomenclature and oxidation I start to lose my train of thought. So I was a little intimidated at the thought of going to a major pharmaceutical lab and learning about what they are doing to develop these incredibly complex biological medications.
Let me take a step back. A few weeks ago, I was invited, along with a number of other IBD bloggers and health activists, to visit Janssen Biotech’s headquarters in Philadelphia for their BioExperience tour of their lab and production facilities. I was really excited for this opportunity because it meant not only that I could learn more about what is being done in the world of IBD treatment, but it also meant that I would have a chance to hang out with some really amazing people. (It also was the first time I spent any time away from my 8-month-old, but that’s another story for another day.)
Our first stop was the Research & Development facility where we got to speak with some of the minds behind the formulation of inflammatory bowel disease treatments. I was especially looking forward to this part because my former GI – the one who helped me through so much with my Crohn’s disease, including my surgery – actually moved from medical practice a few years ago to head up the IBD research department with Janssen and was one of the people talking with us that day!
So right here, let me say that no matter what you think about pharmaceutical companies, know that there is someone out there who truly cares about those of us living with IBD and is working tirelessly to find treatments, preventative measures and hopefully even one day a cure. I completely vouch for this man and for his passion to help patients.
A lot of the discussion here revolved around the introduction of biosimilars to the pharmaceutical market. Biosimilars have been compared to the generic form of a particular medication, but that’s not actually an accurate comparison. Here’s a quick breakdown:
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that a generic can used interchangeably with the name brand medication, but that’s not the case with biologics and biosimilars. While somebody who has not been on a biologic and is starting one could be assigned a biosimilar, for someone who has had a good response to a biologic, switching to a biosimilar may not produce the same results. Basically, we just don’t know enough yet about the interchangeability of these medications.
We took a tour of this R&D facility and where the product is formulated and put through clinical trials, giving us the opportunity to see where the process of making biologics begins. We were able to speak with many of the scientists about the work they do at the facility and ask many, many questions. We learned this is a 24-hour, 365-day operation. They literally do not close down for anything.
The same thing goes for their major manufacturing facility. This place takes it a step further as we weren’t able to tour the actual facility, since it’s locked down in order to prevent any contaminants from getting into the product. Seriously, it’s pretty hardcore. In certain parts of the facility, the workers have to don one or more layers of contaminant-free clothing in order to protect the process. And keep in mind, these workers are there for 12-hour shifts and have to change into and out of these gowns each time they leave the protected parts of the facility. That means every time they need to eat, use the restroom or get a drink, they have to de-gown and re-gown after. The employee who demonstrated for us said he usually does it about 6 times each shift. And all of it is done to make sure that the product is contaminant free.
The entire process was fascinating, from the researchers to the men and women who are actually producing the product. It takes about 90-days to make a batch of Remicade, but these scientists have been studying and working with this basis of this product for more than 20 years! So know that a lot has gone into the medications that are available to us today.
It was a great experience getting to see the facilities first-hand and learn more about this process and all that goes into it. (Even if the chemistry involved still went a bit over my head.) It gave me a new appreciation for all of the time and people involved in each infusion of Remicade and any other biologic. And I realize more how important it is for patients with IBD to have some understanding of what biologics and biosimilars are and can discuss their options with their doctor.
Of course, a highlight of the trip was getting to spend it with some amazing advocates, whom I admire so much. The trip was packed full of tours and events, so we didn’t get as much time to simply hang out as I would have liked, but we still managed to have a great time… and look pretty nerdy in the process.
*Disclaimer: Janssen Biotech paid for my travel and accommodations to attend the tour. Everything I have written is my own and I was not compensated for my time or for writing this post. It is not my purpose to promote any specific medication, but to encourage everyone to discuss any and all options with their doctor.