From the Editors: Ballpark Musings on CGT Workforce Development
Ashley Krull, PhD
Telegraft Contributing Editor
Mayo Clinic Rochester
Rochester, United States
Workforce development was a major theme of the 2022 ISCT Annual Meeting in San Francisco. It seemed to come up in some way in every session. Fantastic ideas were shared in real time about how to find, train, and promote the next generation of cell and gene therapy (CGT) experts. I hope that a lot of people left the conference ready to implement some of those strategies within their home institutions.
As for me, when the conference ended, I recharged my battery at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. For me as a lifelong baseball fan, there is nothing like the energy of a ballpark. However, as much as I wanted to take off my CGT-colored glasses for a bit, we all know that wasn’t going to happen. As I enjoyed the game and reflected on my experience on the plane flight home, I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallel challenges faced by sports teams and CGT teams alike.
Some brief background to make my comparisons land. The New York Yankees have historically been a wealthy franchise and powerhouse baseball team, with a lineup full of superstar players. The San Francisco Giants have historically been the lesser well-known team with less financial might to throw around (in fact, the Giants left New York for San Francisco with the promise of more funding and nicer facilities).
When it comes to building a team, most people would wish to be a Yankee, with seemingly bottomless coffers and scouts that can find talent anywhere. And yet, even with infinite money and resources, the Yankees don’t win the World Series every year. Most of the time, another scrappier team wins. Why? I would argue that success could be credited more to team building and player development, than to pure talent. The trick is knowing how to take a ragtag group of ball players and make them winners.
In the same way, how do you take a group of skilled, smart people and create a team capable of producing safe, effective therapeutics for patients? Maybe your treatment has never been used in humans before. Maybe the regulatory agencies have not yet decided where to set the bar for approval of your therapeutic. Your teammates may not even know what the rules of the game are, but you all share passion and potential, and that is a good place to start.
In fact, all Hall of Fame players start as little leaguers. Accept that education is going to be a vital part of building a clinical CGT laboratory or company. If resources allow, hire a dedicated Education Specialist (or two) with CGT experience to lead onboarding and ongoing competency assessments. These specialists can spend the one-on-one time with CGT rookies that is needed when they are first learning aseptic manufacturing techniques. Having this specialized role also allows trained bench staff to focus on manufacturing activities and join in on more sophisticated training once the new employee has advanced. With the right coaching and management, your staff will steadily develop and gain skills over time.
In addition, just as there are baseball camps for everyone from my 3-year-old niece to my 60-year-old father, the CGT field needs investment in diverse training opportunities to meet people where they are. At the annual meeting, I heard about commercial entities partnering with local community and technical colleges. Imagine, you outfit a lab with the latest and greatest devices from your company, and you end up with a steady stream of trained manufacturing technicians who have specific experience on your equipment. That’s like a kid committing to using Louisville Slugger baseball bats for their entire career because that was the first company to give them a chance to swing one. Companies and academic entities alike ought to consider how they can collaborate or engage with other learning centers in the community to introduce more people to CGT and the myriad of career options available to people with varying skillsets.
Someday we may have a CGT farm system, one where young talent is identified early and cultivated over years of training. But, for now, we need to get creative and keep an open mind around where we can find people to fill out the growing CGT workforce. One of the best suggestions I heard during a roundtable session was to seek out skilled personnel groups going through a career transition, such as veterans. You may be surprised by how many transferable skills these workers have that are harder to teach than pipetting.
Whether at large international institution and a small biotech with less than 13 people, the best results come when learning and problem-solving are treated as expected and required for doing a great job. What’s more, failure is expected and viewed as opportunities for accelerated learning. Just as a player studies video to diagnose problems with his or her swing, the culture of an institution should encourage open, constructive discussion of failures so that the group can continuously improve. Literally every baseball player has missed more balls than they hit. While we in CGT have more at stake than our batting average, we should cultivate environments in which problems are addressed head-on and questions are encouraged so there is never a doubt whether a product will be deemed safe to release to a patient.
Let’s see if I can bring this runner home. Don’t worry if your team is not the Yankees. In fact, be thankful if you are the Giants. Give anyone who wanders into your open try-out a chance to prove themself. Fill your roster with players who have grit and a respect for the game. Rules and regulations are being written while the game is being played, and that’s okay. Hire a good manager and coaching staff to make sure everyone stays limber and up to date on the latest drills. As long as everyone shares a passion for helping patients and a willingness to do whatever they can to help the team, then you eventually will build an all-star lineup of your own.