Interview with Dr. Tony Cox OBE, CEO at UK Biocentre

UK Biocentre is a not-for-profit organisation providing world-leading sample management and high-capacity bioprocessing services to biomedical researchers. They provide sample collection, sample logistics, processing, nucleic acidic extraction, sample storage, and shipping management.

UK Biocentre is currently commissioned by the UK Government to carry out Covid-19 swab testing in the National Testing Program. The Milton Keynes Lighthouse laboratory is part of the largest diagnostic network the UK has ever seen.

Biobanking.com recently spoke with Dr. Tony Cox, Chief Executive Officer at the UK Biocentre, to learn more about the centre, the challenges they addressed in the current pandemic and his views on the future of biobanking and cohort studies.

There seems to be a relationship between UK Biocentre and UK Biobank. Can you give us a brief explanation of this relationship?

The UK Biocentre grew out of the UK Biobank effort. When UK Biobank was set up, the technology, the processes, and the expertise that it developed were focused on the biobank cohort. It was clear that many other projects could potentially benefit from using that expertise if they could have access to it. So UK Biobank spun-out UK Biocentre as a services arm, capable of supporting customers other than just the UK Biobank cohort study.

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Can you give us a brief history of your working life and involvement in activities around biobanking and cohort studies?

I’m a molecular biologist by training. I did my PhD in plant molecular biology at The Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew. I spent nine years there, setting up the new molecular laboratories. DNA sequencing was just beginning to take off as an affordable process. It was a very exciting time.

After that, you worked at the Sanger Institute for over 15 years. Can you give us an insight into the work you were involved in over that time?

Yes, after Kew, I moved to the Sanger Institute as a computer programmer. During my time at Kew, I developed informatics skills, and I became more interested in doing that than staying in the laboratory. So I went to Sanger to do some programming and software development, and I stayed there throughout the Human Genome Project, one of the most wonderful projects to be able to work on.

The Human Genome Project was a massive achievement, and the Sanger was one of the largest contributors to that project. Overall, I’m very proud of the organization and what it did there. Once that was finished, there were several very interesting phases where next-generation sequencing arrived. We did a huge ramp-up in our sequencing operation.

After the Human Genome Project was completed I started leading the research and development group for the high throughput sequencing and genotyping operation. In this way, I was able to mix my molecular biology background with the software development side. My role was to develop and improve the high throughput sequencing processes that delivered the large-scale data collection pipelines at the Sanger Institute.

Another highlight of my time at Sanger was the operational scale-up to support whole-genome sequencingof UK Biobank sample cohort, which was a huge undertaking and another great project to work on.

How has your journey as the CEO of UK Biocentre been so far?

I think I could only describe it as “interesting”. It’s not quite turned out how I expected it to be. I was expecting to focus on designing and delivering high throughput cohort study processing for customers. After just six weeks of being here, it all changed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How does UK Biocentre cater to the biobanking world with its service offering?

During the beginning of the pandemic, we had to put all our core business projects aside because we were asked to focus on setting up Covid-19 testing.

However, by the middle of last year, we had developed a plan to bring all our existing projects back online, and now they are all active. So, we are back in business in terms of supporting large cohort studies. The volume of samples is still slightly impacted by Covid because a lot of the sample collection clinics are working at reduced capacity, but we are fully operational.

You employ a very industrialized/automated operation at UK Biocentre. What are the advantages to cohort studies and biobanks of operating in this way?

Human genetics research projects are developing to the point where very big sample cohort is required if you want to extract multiple small genetic signals that interact in complex ways. To deliver large cohort studies, you need complex logistics, for example, to collect and move samples around. On the other hand, you also need highly automated infrastructure to receive those samples, process them quickly and efficiently and obtain precious data from them. I am sure that in the future, we’ll see increasing levels of automation to process these large cohort studies in the best way possible.

UK Biocentre is at the forefront of the UK national testing program. Tell us how UK Biocentre became one of the lighthouse labs?

The UK Biocentre is funded partly by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) here in the UK. This means that we already had strong links with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), and it was natural for them to identify us as a potential provider of testing services. I got a phone call from Professor John Bell on the 19th of March requesting us to repurpose our laboratories to deliver Covid testing. And that was it. From that day on, we hibernated all our core projects and brought new laboratories online to start the testing process.

The business has grown considerably over the last 9 months, from 45 people to over 800. What have been the biggest challenges over that period, and what have you learned during this exciting period of growth?

The growth has been tremendous. We started with only 45 employees, and now we will shortly be over 900. We’ve grown in a month what a normal company would grow in a year. Of course, this has put quite a strain on various parts of the organization because it had to grow so quickly. It was not only just the laboratories that had to grow. All the support services, the logistics, our warehouse, our HR department. Coordinating all of this has certainly been my biggest challenge so far. But I’m very lucky. I have a fantastic management team around me. They have been remarkable in stepping up to the challenge over the last months.

With the role out of the vaccines, what advice do you have regarding the administration of vaccines by various governments, including the UK and the US?

Vaccination is the only way out of this awful situation we are in. It’s critical that we can deliver the vaccine to as many people as quickly as possible. The infrastructure and planning around the delivery has to be very strong. I think we’re very fortunate in the United Kingdom because we’ve got very strong planning and delivery process for vaccines. It’s essential that people go out and get vaccinated.

Have you seen a significant influx of projects related to COVID-19 research?

Yes, very much so. Partly because we’re linked to the Covid-19 national testing program. Also, we’ve shown that the UK Biocentre has facilities and infrastructures like nowhere else in the UK. For example, we have highly automated storage systems for up to 20 million samples to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius (-80 °C). Being able to offer these services is crucial not only to understand this pandemic but to support further studies and prevent future ones. Having a very large collection of samples is the only way to dissect precisely how these viruses work and what we can do to fight them. A national collection of Covid-19 samples is going to be critical and immensely valuable for future research.

How has UK Biocentre repositioned itself to serve its customers in this pandemic?

First, we’ve set up testing, and we can process up to 100,000 samples daily. We have focused on providing all the support activities for this operation. We had to broaden our organisation because it was very important to run all the other customer projects alongside Covid-19 testing. We’ve had to grow the organisation to allow it to accommodate not only a sample processing and storage operation but also to deliver diagnostic services. I hope that we will be able to broaden our scope even further in the future and offer more value to our future collaborators and customers.

How do you see UK Biocentre evolving over the next 12-18 months?

From the UK Biocentre point of view, I’m very keen to ensure that we can keep the skills and the expertise that we have developed over the last year. Before the pandemic, we didn’t offer diagnostic services, but now we have developed those skills. We have ISO accreditation to support diagnostics. In the future, we want to carry on doing this.

As cohort studies become larger and larger,sample processing overheads become less and less viable for regular laboratories. What the UK Biocentre will provide is the logistics of processing and storage, together with subsequent high-throughput analysis, all under one roof.

It sounds like a busy and exciting time to have experienced in your first 12 months at UK Biocentre. What do you see as the major challenges for the biobanking industry in the next 5 years?

I think we can look forward to bigger cohort studies, and we need to carefully design the processing infrastructure to support them. Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the requirement for a national diagnostic infrastructure network, not only to deliver testing but also to provide the logistical support and storage services. I hope that one of the legacies of Covid-19 will be that organisation like the UK Biocentre will become an active part of that national infrastructure. It’s a huge opportunity, and we shouldn’t let it slip through our fingers.

What keeps you grounded in your personal life in these turbulent times?

During the pandemic, I have been extremely busy and I don’t get a lot of time off, but I think it’s important for our well-being to take time away. I am a bit of a maker, and I love doing DIY to take my mind away from work for a little while.

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Arianna Ferrini is a postdoctoral research fellow in Neuroscience at University College London (UK). She holds a PhD in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine from Imperial College London and an MSc in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology from the University of Florence (Italy). She is the Communication Director of the Association of Italian Scientists in the UK (AISUK) and the Chair of the Student and Young Investigator Section of the European Council of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS). She works as a freelance scientific writer and editor to combine her love for science with her passion for communication.