UCL Department of Biochemical Engineering


Dr Rafiq New Team Member's Q&A

6 February 2017


Qasim Rafiq has recently joined The Department of Biochemical Engineering at UCL. He kindly took some time out to answer questions about how his journey from being a biochemical engineering undergraduate at UCL 13 years ago to joining the research team in January.

What led you to study Biochemical Engineering at UCL?


For me that’s two questions, why Biochemical Engineering and why UCL? I’ll start with the second question first as it’s easier to answer. When I embarked on my MEng degree programme back in 2004, UCL was, and still is, one of the leading universities in the country and for me the opportunity to study in one of the global leading universities was a great incentive. It also allowed me to remain living in London and being an undergraduate student in a truly global city was an unparalleled experience.

As for why Biochemical Engineering, it was the only degree programme that really excited me. I had a background in Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology and this degree programme seemed to be the only one that enabled me to advance in all these areas. It also combined my passion for biology with engineering, with the opportunity to develop new medicines and therapies. Whilst clinicians and biologists will always get the credit they deserve for the ground breaking work they do (and rightly so!), it always surprised me that those who actually manufacture and provide therapies to thousands of patients never quite got the recognition from the general public. A great example of this antibiotic production. Everyone naturally associates this with Sir Alexander Fleming, but not many are familiar with the extraordinary efforts of Howard Florey and Sir Ernst Chain who essentially undertook the role of a biochemical engineer and developed a large-scale production process for penicillin and made it available to the masses, even conducting clinical trials.

What did you go on to do?

I completed my MEng in Biochemical Engineering in 2008 and decided to undertake a PhD at Loughborough University as part of the EPSRC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Regenerative Medicine. Having been enthused by Prof. Chris Mason (UCL) in the opportunity with stem cells and cell-based therapies, I realised there was a great opportunity to look at the large-scale manufacture of stem cells as part of an ‘advanced therapy’, where the cells would form part of the therapy. Moreover, such a treatment option would potentially provide a cure for certain clinical conditions and had the potential to treat conditions we could never conceivably address previously (including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spinal cord injury).

I completed my PhD in collaboration with Lonza (contract-manufacturing organisation) investigating the litre-scale manufacture of human adult stem cells in stirred-tank bioreactors. The PhD only ignited my passion for research in advanced therapy production and I was awarded a £250k EPSRC Fellowship to develop a small-scale model for human adult stem cell production – the purpose of this was to be able to run multiple experiments at the millilitre scale, resulting in a reduction of costs, allowing us to run multiple experiments in parallel and ultimately expediting process development.

After my Fellowship, I became a Lecturer at Aston University in 2013 where I established and led the Bioprocess Engineering Research Group, a multidisciplinary research team comprised of 5 post-doctoral researchers, 1 PhD student and 3 MSc students. Our core research activity focused on technology development and the biomanufacture of advanced therapeutics including cell, gene and tissue-based therapy.

What will you be working on?

My research focus at UCL will be addressing the challenges of taking advanced therapies from the laboratory scale to industrial/clinical scale. This includes the “whole bioprocess” approach including the sourcing of raw materials and cells, through cell expansion in bioreactors and ultimately the downstream processing needed to purify and concentrate cell product for delivery to the patient.

Much of my research activity is industry-aligned, meaning that I work closely with companies to improve their processes or products to expedite therapy development. For example, I am currently working with Biovault Technical, a UK-based umbilical cord blood and tissue bank, to investigate methods for production of human adult stem cells from umbilical-cord tissue which may provide an effective treatment option in the future for future customers.

I’m also working on a large European project, Autostem (www.autostem2020.eu), funded by the EU Commission with 9 European collaborators which is focused on the development of an automated manufacturing facility for human adult stem cells. My particular focus is the bioprocess and mass production of human adult stem cells, and we have colleagues in Germany who are developing the automated facility and colleagues in Ireland who are isolating the optimal human adult stem cells for us to expand.