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Q&A: Dr Ulrike Lorch – Skills in clinical research – how to ensure the UK and London remains globally competitive

In our recent London Life Sciences Real Estate Demand Report, we highlighted the rapid growth in demand for life sciences companies wishing to be located in London, with one of the key drivers being access to highly skilled people. In some key roles, applicant numbers and quality are recognised as the best in the world, but to ensure London maintains this position, we must secure the supply chain of highly skilled staff for the future. One of our key recommendations in the report is to foster partnerships between higher education institutes and industry, ensuring that skills development remains top of the agenda.

With this in mind, we were delighted to chat to Dr Ulrike Lorch, Medical Director, Richmond Pharmacology, this month about her leadership and contribution to new pharmacological skills initiatives. Dr Lorch has recently taken on the role of Director of Human Pharmacology at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine (FPM) – the professional membership body dedicated to advancing the science and practice of pharmaceutical medicine – and has also played a key role in the development of other industry-education partnerships leading crucial training and qualifications initiatives.

Q. Could you give us an overview of your work and priorities?

Twenty years ago, alongside co-founder Dr Jorg Taubel, I established Richmond Pharmacology an early phase clinical research unit bridging academic, clinical and therapeutic research.
As Medical Director, I am at the forefront of ensuring we have the capabilities to develop and deliver innovative, adaptive clinical trials and can provide the assurances on patient safety and time efficiency. I’m responsible for the clinical safety of all trials and I lead on our workforce development programmes, creating bespoke training, mentoring and appraisals for general and specialist medical trainees.

Q. You’ve been heavily involved in, not only your own organisation’s training of medical practitioners, but also shaping the framework for the wider pharmacology sector, isn’t that right?

Yes absolutely. Designing improved and more practical development programmes for trainees is something that I am passionate about.

I have always acknowledged the positive mentors I was lucky enough to have and the opportunity and challenge to develop my own modular training, tailored to the work we were doing or were interested in. This activity required a great deal of effort as there were no predetermined development pathways to follow and few modular training opportunities were available.
This is the reason why I have supported and influenced the development of new training programmes – such as the Pharmaceutical Medicine Specialty Training (PMST) curriculum 2021 – that enables doctors to gain and apply their learning and capabilities in different practical settings.
I am also proud to be a member of the trailblazer group developing the MSc Apprenticeship for Clinical Pharmacology Scientists within the Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance (CPSA). The CPSA was established in 2017 via a partnership between the pharmaceutical industry, Health Education England, the British Pharmacological Society and Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine (FPM), with the objective of delivering a long-term action plan for the UK clinical pharmacology workforce.

The flexibility built into modern training and continuous professional development programmes is crucial in developing a balanced range of practitioners with different skills and capabilities that – using a collaborative approach – enable teams to achieve their research objectives.
Within Richmond Pharmacology – and others that follow the PMST curriculum programme – trainees undertake a 3-4 year programme. We ask trainees to choose a special interest from year 2 onwards. Each doctor may train and develop in different areas, depending upon their personal interests and the work they do or intend to do. That flexibility to gain foundational and advanced capabilities is empowering for ambitious and curious medics. Flexible training equips doctors who come from different backgrounds and have different career pathways with the capabilities needed to practise modern clinical pharmacology. It also allows doctors to go into the depth of training required to become specialist principal investigators over time. This can be achieved by increasing accredited capability levels in those areas of the curriculum covering early phase clinical research.

Q. You have recently been appointed Director of Human Pharmacology at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine (FPM). Can you tell us more?

I am delighted to have been appointed Director of Human Pharmacology, it’s a sizeable and challenging role given the breadth of the FPM’s membership and the crucial role the organisation plays in advancing the practice of pharmaceutical medicine through training, support, and advocacy. This is a new position at FPM and gives me oversight and ownership over the Diploma in Human Pharmacology programme, a qualification which equips medical doctors with the skills and experience to become Principal Investigators for early phase clinical research – particularly first in human studies.

I was motivated to put myself forward as I have for many years been deeply interested and involved in directly training – and building the framework for – medics developing their skills in pharmaceutical medicine. I see this as an opportunity to help make training future proof by striking the right balance between standards and core competencies and diversifying the training programmes to make it more feasible and accessible to a wider range of qualified medics. It is an incredibly exciting time to enter the clinical research profession and it’s important that the training and support provided by the FPM is as attractive as possible.

Q. What is your vision for the role?

My ambition for the role is to provide strategic direction, evolving a training framework that enables a flexible learning environment. It will reward those wishing to challenge themselves and prepare new cohorts to engage with the most advanced scientific technologies emerging, such as genomic therapies.

An approach to making training and support more tailored and appropriate for trainees is to seek more of their detailed feedback on an ongoing basis than ever before. In many sectors this is commonplace and is a factor often associated with high performing institutions and good participant satisfaction. I want to bring this into FPM processes by establishing a clinical pharmacology trainee taskforce that can help to set the direction and practical implementation of pharmaceutical medicine training and standards.

Q. How is the UK ensuring it remains globally competitive? How does training and skills fit into this?

London and the rest of the UK are rightly proud of our expertise in life sciences and clinical research, however our advantages in this sector do not happen by accident and policy makers and the industry need to work together to ensure that we remain amongst the leaders in a globally competitive field.

This year, the UK Government published its Life Sciences Vision, a blueprint for how the UK can combat the biggest modern healthcare threats, secure greater inward investment and employment and become the leading global hub for life sciences. It was no surprise that having and growing a skilled scientific workforce was identified as a key factor in helping to realise this ambition. By 2030, it is estimated the sector has the potential to create around 133,000 jobs, covering not just direct scientific research but also encompassing digital, statistical, translation and commercial skills.

At Richmond Pharmacology, and the FPM, we are contributing to this vision by equipping scientists and doctors with the skills needed to investigate the latest innovations. These range from small molecular work through to personalised medicines and, increasingly, highly innovative gene editing therapies. Alongside the more flexible, modular training I have already described, training has also been adapted to make it significantly more practical than it used to be. Practical engagement allows doctors and scientists to be surrounded by those with the experience and knowledge, and to learn by doing and through collaboration. This is applicable not only for trainees but also for specialists who need to continuously adapt their capabilities and their collaborative networks to perform clinical research in the latest innovative medicines and treatments.
This model of workforce development means that clinical research organisations – and more broadly UK PLC – retain and develop the skills that bring us a competitive advantage in delivering ground breaking early phase clinical research.

If the UK can continue to demonstrate it is developing and retaining top-level clinical researchers, then it will continue to attract a high volume of ground-breaking studies from international drug developers. This, in turn, will benefit the local patient population and the economy, which is very much aligned with the Government’s Life Sciences Vision.

More on skills development

As part of MedCity’s efforts to support skills development in London, we’re working with students from UCL on two research projects – to gain a clearer picture of gender distributions amongst people in leadership positions in academic and research institutions [Read more here], and to look at how areas of life sciences innovation can support meaningful community development. Look out for more on these projects in future issues of our newsletter.

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