April 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 7)
Susan Aldridge, Ph.D.
From Financing to Tax Credits and IP Protection, Countries Seek to Nurture Local Bioindustries
The Rhein-Neckar biocluster (BioRN) in Germany recently won the country’s “Top Cluster” contest. According to Christian Sidona, Ph.D., BioRN’s managing director, the presence of major players like Roche, Merck, Abbott, and BASF has much to do with the region’s success. “Innovation is the key to economic development and creation of new jobs both in this region and in Germany as a whole,” added Jürgen Schwiezer, Ph.D., CEO of the diagnostics division at Roche.
Most innovation is seen as coming from the smaller companies, however many of these large firms are also innovating. For example, BASF is parlaying its expertise in white and green biotech to develop a metanomics platform. “We use this to screen thousands of plants and analyze their metabolic profile,” explained Hans Kast, Ph.D., president and CEO BASF Plant Science. “We offer this technology to companies working on drug development and diagnostics—it is a nice example of synergy between the different colors of biotech.”
Rhein Neckar plays second fiddle to the well-established Munich cluster in terms of numbers of patents and size of VC investment, according to Dr. Sidona. “Our core competencies are in cell-based and molecular medicine,” he added. There are currently 60 start-ups in the region, and it is hoped that 4,000 new jobs will be created in the next ten years.
According to BioRN, Germany offers many perks to the biotech industry, such as low-cost clinical trials and 830,000 liters of manufacturing capacity. The government has several new strategies under way for funding biotech at both the institutional and project level with systems biology and tissue engineering being key interest areas. In addition, the country is working toward building a national framework in regenerative medicine with centers of excellence in Dresden, Berlin, Hannover, and Leipzig that will form the Regenerative Medicine Institute. The aim is to establish Germany as a location for translation and to help companies unsure of how to classify or launch regenerative medicine products.
Italy is also seeking to make its mark on the European biotech scene. A new cluster is forming in Canavere near Piedmont, which has its own innovation cluster. International networking is being seen, increasingly, as a strategic tool to enhance Italy’s presence globally. Key partnerships include BioAlps (with Switzerland), Adebag (a TransAlpine BioCluster between Turin, Grenoble, and francophone Switzerland), and collaborations with Bilbao Science Park, the Technical Center of New Jersey, and the Biotech Center of Sfax (Tunisia).
Neighboring Austria has many sources of government funding under the LISA (Life Sciences Austria) program of the Ministry for Education and Labour, such as seed funding for highly innovative companies. One LISA recipient is PDC Biotech, a female healthcare company that recently relocated from Toronto to Vienna. The company is developing two peptides, PDC31 for preterm labor and PDC41 for primary dysmenorrhea. PDC benefited from a €1 million loan from LISA, which is repayable when the firm is generating revenues.
Another company that has benefited from LISA is onepharm, which is focused on periodontitis. The firm reports that preclinical studies show that their compounds can stop bone erosion. A company spokesperson touts Austria as one of the best places to start a company in Europe because of the funding opportunities.
Austria’s oldest biotech, Fibrex Medical, has used government money to fund growth. It obtained €13 million from VCs, which was supplemented by €4 million from the Austrian government. Fibrex specializes in cardiovascular diseases and inflammation.
MarinoMed, also based in Vienna, has gone from start-up to market in less than two years. The firm has developed an antiviral nasal spray against the common cold derived from red seaweed. The company also has an immunemodulator extracted from a marine snail in the pipeline.
Philip Kendall, of UK Trade and Investment, pointed out various advantages to locating in the U.K., including the science base, R&D tax credits, strong tech transfer, IP protection, and the presence of many large pharma companies. The U.K. has been through a phase of cluster development (Dundee, Manchester, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Liverpool) with Cambridge now being the largest one outside of the U.S.
The devolved administrations of the U.K. all have something to offer biotech. For example, Northern Ireland reportedly has the youngest and fastest-growing population in Europe. There have been ten start-ups in the last six years from Queens University Belfast and the University of Ulster, and the companies in Northern Ireland including Almac, Fusion Antibodies, Norbrook Labs, and Randox.
Meanwhile, Scotland boasts more medical research per capita than anywhere else in Europe and the largest concentration of stem cell researchers. Scotland’s Intermediary Technology Institutes, which aim to commercialize research, have programs under way in stem cells, cardiac biomarkers, and text mining. Scotland also offers a range of financing opportunities for companies such as the Scottish seed fund, Scottish Venture Fund, and Scottish Co-investment Fund.
A noteworthy U.K. company is Cambridge-based TwistDx, which has developed an alternative to PCR known as recombinase polymerase amplification (RPA) for nucleic acid detection. “It does everything PCR does, but it is an isothermal reaction in which the need for heating and cooling is replaced by enzymes,” explained CEO Niall Armes, Ph.D. Results from RPA come through 10 minutes after mixing sample solution with dry reagents and incubation at 37°C with proprietary probes, he said. The technique has proven to also work on crude samples, avoiding a need for DNA purification. RPA works with any nucleic acid target and will be particularly useful in situations where PCR is too expensive or sample preparation is too complex.
The company is positioning RPA as a mobile technology (lab, point-of-care, or field-use formats, with disposables to follow). It has many potential applications in the clinical sector and in animal health, water testing, and agriculture.
Over 1,350 companies presented at “BIO-Europe,” which took place in Mannheim, Germany. Among the cadre of German companies in attendance was Dresden-based JADO Technologies, which is developing oral small molecule lipids that target subcompartments of cell membranes called Rafts. The company was spun out of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in 2003, and its growth has been supported by financing from the Saxony region.
Potential drugs from JADO’s compound library target lipid Rafts in the membrane and modulate specific events such as cell signaling. Rafts are lipid and protein complexes that form and disperse when needed and regulate diverse biological processes. Raft modulators are embedded into Rafts and exert an allosteric inhibition of resident target proteins.
“It is quite a paradigm shift, and there are few other companies in this field,” said CEO Charl van Zyl. JADO is focusing its development efforts on allergy and has proof-of-concept in atopic dermatitis. It hopes to have compounds for asthma in Phase I/II by 2011.
Another German company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which is developing antibodies against targets on a range of solid tumors, announced the closing of a €65M funding round at “BIO-Europe.” The funding will support the company’s Phase Ib trial of Claudiximab (iMAB362) in metastatic gastroesophageal cancer and help progress pipeline projects in breast, colorectal, lung, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.
Meanwhile, InteRNA Technologies and Cenix BioScience have signed an agreement covering the use of InteRNA’s library of lentiviral-based miRNAs in functional screens in human cell lines. Cenix will apply the library in high-throughput screening assays in combination with high-content phenotypic analyses to explore the role of individual miRNAs and novel therapeutic targets in cancer.
Endotis Pharma specializes in small glyco-drugs based upon heparin and heparan sulphate for thrombosis, oncology, and other indications. “We have a unique combination of chemistry and biological expertise,” said Chris Piggott, Ph.D., vp of business development. The company is currently progressing a thrombosis franchise.
EP42675 will begin Phase II in acute coronary syndrome and has already shown efficacy relative to reference anticoagulants in a rabbit model, according to Dr. Piggott. EP224283 is a dual-action (Factor Xa inhibitor and GPIIb/IIIa antagonist) antidotable antithrombotic. It could, said Dr. Piggott, replace parenteral antiplatelet anticoagulation combination therapy with one simple treatment.
Susan Aldridge, Ph.D. ([email protected]), is a freelance science and medical writer specializing in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, chemistry, medicine, and health.