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Sweden Bolstering Research Despite an Uncertain Climate

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By Cormac Sheridan
Staff Writer

STOCKHOLM & UPPSALA, Sweden – The scaling up of university-based drug discovery research in the Stockholm-Uppsala region, just as AstraZeneca plc is exiting from that same activity, neatly encapsulates an industry trend that has created both headaches and opportunities for Europe's leading bioscience research centers.

Employees and policymakers are still grappling with London-based AstraZeneca's decision, made back in February, to shutter its neuroscience R&D facility in Sodertalje, 20 miles southwest of Stockholm, with the loss of 1,200 jobs, more than half of which involve PhD-level scientists.

Although it will not be able to take up the slack to any significant extent, Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab), Sweden's flagship bioscience initiative, is gearing up to embark on an academic-focused drug discovery effort, as part of its wider mission to bring infrastructure-driven biological research to Sweden.

"The government gave us special money in the aftermath of the AstraZeneca layoffs, to put together, in an academic setting, a drug development toolbox," Mathias Uhlen, managing director of SciLifeLab Stockholm, told BioWorld International.

Modeled on the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., SciLifeLab is located in Stockholm and Uppsala and has a dual management structure, although it will be merged into a single organization next year. It is building up core expertise in genomics, proteomics, bioimaging and functional biology, and comparative genetics. It is a major beneficiary of a recent increase in Sweden's science budget. (See BioWorld International, Sep. 12, 2012.)

At SEK40 million (US$6 million) per year for the next four years, SciLifeLab's funding for drug development is, Uhlen said, "a drop in the ocean" compared with big pharma's R&D spend, although the available cash should leverage additional external funding.

The aim is to enable academic researchers to conduct early stage discovery and development research, while retaining ownership of their projects.

"One of the problems we have in life sciences is you need to go to venture capital very early, before you're ready," he said. "By the time you have succeeded in having something that can go into Phase I trials, the founders are diluted – they are gone."

How far projects will be allowed to progress is still an open question. "Some people would definitely take it all the way to man," Uhlen said. "I think it's very much upstream."

The specifics of which projects will be pursued – and in which fields – have yet to be worked out as well. "It's way too early to say. We are not limiting ourselves to certain areas," Karin Forsberg Nilsson, vice director of SciLifeLab Uppsala, told BioWorld International. "The government has implicitly asked us not to rush this."

The drug discovery initiative will create an opportunity to support projects involving a "deep understanding of the biological target," she said. "In corporate environments the timelines are so short, and decisions are not always taken on the basis of the best biology," said Forsberg Nilsson, who previously spent four years in industry.

The initiative offers an opportunity to pursue projects that the pharmaceutical industry would not, including those involving undruggable targets. "To me, that is only a word. It's undruggable unless someone proves otherwise," Forsberg Nilsson said.

The Uppsala Innovation Centre, meanwhile, is working with a portfolio of 15 early stage ventures, which collectively involve some 40 AstraZeneca staffers. Those highly experienced scientists are developing service-based businesses based around various aspects of drug development research, while on gardening leave from AstraZeneca.

"Out of 15, if we get a few companies going, that's good," Anders Nordstrom, senior business development advisor at Uppsala Innovation Centre, told BioWorld International. "We have out of the portfolio three companies that have gone a little bit further, but they need financing to move ahead."

The newly formed ventures include Offspring Biosciences AB, which aims to provide high-quality analyses of biomolecules in tissues, cells and body fluids to aid decision-making in drug discovery and development.

That company is negotiating access to lab facilities in a number of centers, including the AstraZeneca site at Sodertalje. "The facilities there are top-notch. It's a wonderful opportunity," CEO Anders Dahlstrand told BioWorld International. Another contender seeking access to Sodertalje facilities is ADME.EX, which aims to offer preclinical ADME services to drug developers in the region and beyond.

Negotiations on taking forward some of the AstraZeneca assets developed at Sodertalje are ongoing as well. "There are some pipeline projects," Nordstrom said.

Uppsala, a city of 250,000 located more than 40 miles northwest of Stockholm, went through a similar upheaval during the 1990s when Pharmacia, another part of the bedrock of Sweden's life sciences sector, went through various merger transactions. "A lot of talent was released, looking for new exciting things to do," Ulf Landegren, vice chairman of SciLifeLab Uppsala, told BioWorld International.

"It's deeply regrettable when that happens," said Nigel Darby, chief technology officer of GE Healthcare's life sciences division, which has its roots in the former Pharmacia Biotech facility in Uppsala. But, he added, "it does give you a broader talent pool to draw from." Moreover, many of those do form their own ventures. "There is a kind of recycling effect," he said.

What makes it difficult for new ventures in the present climate is that many of Sweden's small-scale drug developers have been having a hard time, both in the clinic and on the stock market. Investors have been burned by several clinical failures and badly need a success story to reawaken their enthusiasm for the sector.

A lot is riding, therefore, on Huddinge-based Medivir AB, which is in late-stage trials with what it claims may be a best-in-class protease inhibitor for hepatitis C infection. Phase III data are due on simeprevir (TMC435) by the end of the year.

Sweden had a major presence in the global pharmaceutical industry throughout the 20th century through Pharmacia and Astra. While it is making the upstream research investments that will secure its role as a source of innovation in the present century, its commercial participation is less assured. "I don't think small pharma and big pharma fully realize what their future roles are," said Bo Oberg, co-founder and vice president of R&D strategic planning at Medivir.

Where Sweden will fit into that emerging industry model is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that the old certainties are now over. "What we are facing now is a huge change for Sweden. I don't think people realize that," Bengt Wittgren, deputy director general of the Swedish Medical Products Agency, told BioWorld International.