HELSINKI — Five years since its establishment of ScanBalt (Copenhagen, Denmark) as a biotech “metaregion” or “network of networks,” the initiative is starting to influence the shape of biotechnology co-operation among its member organizations, companies and institutions.

The regional, located in 11 countries stretching from Iceland in the west to St. Petersburg, Russia, in the east, is seeing a growing number of projects emerging in multiple areas, including research, education and training, intellectual property protection and technology transfer, due to the increased level of cooperation between the countries. These projects have attracted over 14.2 million ($5.4 million) in funding so far.

The organization is now trying to catalyze the creation of new funding mechanisms for the life sciences within the region, and to gain a leading role in upcoming European Union initiatives. ScanBalt, created in early 2002, is aimed at overcoming the limitations of individual constituent members by fostering greater interaction and partnership between companies, research institutes and universities across the region. The umbrella body comprises 15 local or regional biotechnology associations, as well as 23 universities and 15 industry and technology transfer organizations.

A recently completed mapping and cluster analysis project has fed into the development of an Internet-based “yellow Pages” of all biotechnology-related organizations across the region. The final report will be published in March and will contain findings that will challenge existing assumptions. “There’s a myth that there is not much to be found in the Baltic countries. That’s wrong,” said ScanBalt chairman Bo Samuelsson.

The mapping project has helped spawn the establishment of several new local organizations, including the Latvian Biotechnology Association, set up in 2006. Two fledgling organizations, Biosantara and BioPomerania, have also been created to promote the development of biotechnology in Vilnius, Lithuania, and the Gdansk region of Poland.

The ScanBalt concept has not gained the endorsement of all the main biotechnology players in the region, however. In fact, the biggest of them has opted to stay out of the umbrella body. “Stockholm-Uppsala are not members of ScanBalt, unfortunately. We are working on that,” said Samuelsson.

One of the main problems the region faces is a pervasive lack of finance. Apart from Medicon Valley, a mature cluster that links the greater Copenhagen region with Lund and Malmo in southwest Sweden, most locations — and companies — across ScanBalt are struggling to attract investment dollars. The end result is that good ideas, funded by taxpayer dollars, are often commercialized outside the region. “We have to do something about that,” said Samuelsson.

One idea currently under development is a proposed Baltic Sea Region Life Sciences Foundation, which would be a vehicle for funding public/private partnerships that could address areas that are currently underserved by the financial markets. “You have this gap in the market before venture capital or commercial capital goes in,” ScanBalt general secretary Peter Frank said.

The Sweden-based banking group, Nordea (Stockholm), the largest financial services firm in the region and one of the movers behind this idea, would be in a position to fund promising projects. Norforsk, the Nordic Council of Ministers, a research and education initiative involving the relevant ministries from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, also has expressed support for the proposed initiative. But it needs additional political backing to .bring it to reality.

Norforsk is exploring the potential of the proposed foundation to support an international biotech PhD program funded jointly by the public and private sectors. The Drug Research Academy (DRA), based at the Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences (Copenhagen), offers an existing model for this type of postgraduate education. Backed by 11 pharmaceutical and biotech firms, the academy has recruited some 50 students over the past five years.


Healthcare reform in Germany to take effect April 1

Healthcare reform is on the way in Germany following the recent “breakthrough” agreement, as cited by Health Minister Ulla Schmidt, ending months of bitter disputes within the government’s multi-party coalition. Originally scheduled to start Jan. 1, the reform now will take effect April 1.

The amended reform proposal was put to a vote in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German Parliament, in January. The compromise is considered a victory for the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which saw its popularity plummet in the fall as the reform ran into heavy resistance.

A core element of the Merkel plan for reducing costs and making the system more transparent is the creation of a central fund to consolidate the 250 separate health funds to which 90% of the population — 70 million people — contribute about 14% of annual salary. Under the compromise, creation of the fund will be delayed until 2009.

The final dispute concerned what many saw as a disproportionate shift of the financial burden for the healthcare system to wealthier states in the German Federation in order to offset contributions from struggling states, such as those in the former East Germany. Bavarian conservatives led the battle against the Merkel proposal and won the delay for the Bundestag vote.

Germany’s ailing healthcare system is ranked as the world’s third-most-expensive, behind Switzerland and the U.S., according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Paris). The system is expected to report a shortfall of EUR 7 billion ($9 billion) this year, creating a sense of urgency and a pressure on legislators “to stop tinkering and take decisive action,” according to an analyst at Global Insights.

The Merkel cabinet scored a victory in maintaining extension of the healthcare system to all German citizens with universal coverage. Today up to 300,000 Germans are uninsured. At the opposite end of the social ladder some 8 million of the wealthiest subscribe to a private health plan.


Mölnlycke Health Care bought in deal valued at $3.6 billion

Mölnlycke Health Care (Stockholm, Sweden), a provider of single-use surgical and wound care products, comes under Swedish ownership again after being acquired last month for E2.85 billion ($3.6 billion) by Investor AB (Stockholm) and Morgan Stanley Principal Investments (MSPI).

Mölnlycke, with 2006 sales of E760 million, has almost 6,000 employees. The company was formed in August 2005 by private equity firm Apax Partners (London) with the consolidation of three businesses: the surgical glove maker Regent Medical, the wound care activities of SSL International (later re-named Medlock Medical) and Mölnlycke. Investor and MSPI will equally control ownership, with Mölnlycke’s management as minority shareholders.

Investor reports holding strong cash reserves and was nearly debt-free before the acquisition, which it says will be financed through external debt arranged by HSBC Bank, Morgan Stanley Bank International and SEB Merchant Banking.

In 2006, Investor bought Gambro (also Stockholm), the large provider of renal care products and services. Recent MSPI healthcare investments include Grifols (Madrid, Spain), a supplier of plasma products, diagnostic reagents, automated analyzers and dosing machines, as well as US Oncology (Houston), specializing in oncology pharmaceutical services, with 85 outpatient clinics.


Study finds Ablatherm success vs. high-risk prostate cancer

EDAP TMS (Lyon, France) said a recent publication outlined successful results achieved in an Italian study of 30 men with high-risk prostate cancer who elected to pursue the company’s Ablatherm HIFU therapy in conjunction with LHRH hormone therapy.

Ablatherm HIFU is used on a routine basis addressing patients with T1 or T2 localized prostate cancer who are not candidates for surgery or who wish to avoid side effects directly linked to a prostatectomy procedure. EDAP said Ablatherm also offers an alternative to patients who failed a radiotherapy treatment where no other solution was available up to now.

Professor Vincenzo Ficarra of the urology department at the University of Padova (Padova, Italy), working with Professor Walter Artibani, co-author of the article, said, “In our experimental study, we evaluated the potential application of HIFU and concomitant androgen ablation in a different category of patients with high-risk prostate cancer. The aim of the study was to verify if HIFU treatment could be considered a minimally invasive alternative to the current recommended treatments for these patients.”

“Prostate biopsies performed 12 months after the treatment showed 77% negative biopsies and 90% of the patients treated with HIFU and three monthly depot LHRH analogue preparations had undetectable PSA levels, and none had clinical progression of disease,” Ficarra added.


China’s growth in nanotech focus of Washington program

A recent event in Washington focused on China’s current and future capabilities to become a leading global nanotechnology nation.

“China is betting that their growing investment in nanoscience will help them capture a large share of what shortly will become a $3 trillion global market in nanotech manufactured goods, and that breakthroughs in nanotechnology research and commercialization will confer economic superpower status on the country that attains first mover advantage in this cutting-edge technology,” said Richard Appelbaum, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Appelbaum made his remarks at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington) co-sponsored by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, the Asia Program, the China Environment Forum and the Program on Science, Technology, America and the Global Economy. The “Nanotechnology in China: Ambitions and Realities” program was moderated by Evan Michelson, research associate at the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

“Worldwide, nanotechnology has emerged as a critical area for science and technology competition — much like the race to be the first country to put a man on the moon,” Michelson said. “China and the U.S. are both big players in the nanotech race. Each faces a number of significant competitive challenges and collaborative opportunities, including the need for internationally-coordinated risk research strategies and effective oversight mechanisms.”

“It would be unfortunate if government agencies in both countries squandered this unique opportunity to help direct nanotechnology at a relatively early stage along a responsible path. Both nations need to work together to help engender public confidence in the private and public sectors’ ability to handle possible nanotechnology risks and to increase the capacity of public institutions to deal with the long-term implications posed by this cutting-edge innovation,” Michelson added.

Panelist Denis Fred Simon, an expert on Chinese science and technology policy and vice president of academic affairs at the State University of New York (Albany), situated China’s nanotech research and investment capacity within the context of the country’s long-term science and technology strategy.

“China recently released plans to radically increase its research and development capabilities over the next 15 years,” Simon said. “It will be a grand experiment to see if the country can become a global innovation center. Central to these prospects are a number of key frontier technologies — including nanotechnology — aimed at ensuring the country’s long-term competitiveness as it faces various funding, management and organizational obstacles.”

The latest Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecast is that China will have spent more on R&D than Japan in 2006, making it the world’s second-highest investor in R&D after the U.S.


Scottish study finds pros,cons of uterine fibroidembolization

A Scottish study has examined the pros and cons of embolization as opposed to surgery for treatment of uterine fibroids. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that on average, surgery results in fewer complications, but requires a longer hospital stay. The study is by researchers based at Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Uterine fibroids are benign growths or lesions that form inside the uterus of many women during their reproductive years. It is estimated that some 25% of white women and as many as 50% of black women are affected by them. Some fibroids can be very small, others the size of a walnut, but it is not uncommon for them to get as large as grapefruits and for women to be able to feel them by pressing on their abdomen.

Not all fibroids need to be removed. It is only when they become painful or cause irregular bleeding that a doctor may advise their removal. The most common treatments are either to remove the fibroids (myomectomy), perform a hysterectomy, or by uterine artery embolization (UAE) where the blood supply to the fibroids is blocked.

The researchers compared a group of 51 women who had surgery (hysterectomy and myomectomy) with 106 that had the embolization (UAE) treatment. After a one year follow-up, they found that there was no significant difference in a range of quality of life measures between the two groups, and the women who had UAE were in the hospital for less time. But, the women who had UAE were more likely to be re-admitted for additional treatment because the UAE had not been successful the first time.

The results showed that after one year, the symptom scores in the surgical group were on the whole better than the UAE group. Within the first year, 13 of the UAE women had adverse symptom events (12% of the participants) compared with 10 in the surgery group (20%). And 10 UAE patients needed a repeat treatment, either another UAE or hysterectomy.

After the first year, 14 women in the UAE group (13%) were re-admitted to the hospital, three for major adverse events and 11 for repeat treatment because the original UAE had not been successful.

The main conclusion of the study is that doctors are recommended to balance the faster recovery after embolization against the possibility that a minority of patients may need to have further treatment.


Babies in England to bescreened forMCADD

All babies in England are to be screened for an inherited metabolic disease called Medium Chain Acyl CoA Dehydrogenase Deficiency (MCADD), within two weeks of birth, according to a recent report by the UK Department of Health. The program will be rolled out over the next two years.

Health Minister Ivan Lewis said the check will be carried out as part of the standard "heel-prick" test for babies that screens for other diseases such as sickle cell disorders and congenital hypothyroidism.

MCADD is a rare inherited metabolic disease that reduces the ability to maintain a normal blood sugar during episodes of metabolic stress. It affects between one in 10,000 and one in 20,000 babies born in the UK and screening should identify around 28 cases a year in England, Lewis said.

If the disease is not identified at an early stage, around a quarter of affected children will die from the condition, with one-third of survivors sustaining significant neurological damage. The Department of Health said that once babies are identified and given simple treatment, the risk of acute, life-threatening episodes needing emergency and intensive care and of death is substantially reduced.