HAMBURG, Germany - Biofrontera Pharmaceuticals GmbH, a new start-up company, has been founded by a nucleus of scientists from Novartis Pharma AG. The research-oriented company tries to find new therapeutic targets for central nervous system (CNS) disorders. With DM21.8 million (US$12.9 million) capital raised, the Leverkusen-based company is one of the biggest independent biotech start-ups in Germany.
Hermann Lübbert, who founded Biofrontera, had been head of genome research at Sandoz AG, and later head of neurogenomics research at Novartis Pharma AG, both of Basel, Switzerland.
“The decision to leave Novartis stood at the end of a long process,“ Lübbert told BioWorld International. “Today, big pharmaceutical companies are hardly able to develop the number of new drugs required for their survival. They must bundle their activities, and their operations have to be based on division of labor. Increasingly, research efforts rely on cooperation with small, flexible biotechnology companies at the frontiers of science. So, I asked myself where I wanted to belong, and in the end I decided to prefer a more flexible environment and to start a biotech company myself.“
Lübbert said he was happy that eight of his longstanding collaborators joined him in the company. Biofrontera will focus on disorders of the central nervous system, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and drug addiction.
“This has been my field of work for years,“ Lübbert said, “but in addition, there is a big and growing demand for drugs against these diseases, as there is no causal therapy so far and the population is aging.“ The market for Alzheimer's disease treatment alone is DM1.2 billion, he noted.
“To identify promising targets, we will follow a very structured and elegant approach,“ Lübbert said. Biofrontera holds the exclusive license to a proprietary technology developed by Novartis that enables an assessment of the genetic activity in a complete genome. Digital Expression Pattern Display (DEPD) is based on the differential display technique and is able to monitor the activity of up to 100,000 different genes with “unprecedented“ precision and specificity, he said.
“This will enable us to compare normal to pathological patterns, and to trace the genes and biochemical pathways associated with the onset and progress of a certain disease in animal models,“ Lubbert said. After the identification of new drug targets, the company will use a high-throughput cDNA cloning approach and a novel screening system to select active substances.
“These follow-up techniques will link our target identification to the search for drugs in a very effective way,“ Lubbert said.
The founders had looked for sites in the U.S., Europe, and other parts of Germany, but finally decided to set up the company in the Rhine area, one of the winning regions of Germany's much-lauded BioRegio contest. (See BioWorld International, Sept. 10, 1997, p. 1.)
“Without this contest, we would have gone to England, presumably,“ Lübbert said. “We found a very supporting environment here, in financial, logistical, and research terms.“
Lead investor in the new company is LeVenture Kapitalbeteiligungsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, a wholly owned subsidiary of Stadtsparkasse Leverkusen, a bank in Leverkusen. Also investing are TechnoMedia Kapitalbeteiligungsgesellschaft mbH, of Cologne; Technologiebeteiligungsgesellschaft tbg, of Bonn; and Pharm-Eco Laboratories Inc., of Lexington, Mass.
Pharm-Eco concentrates exclusively on chemistry and will aid Biofrontera with scientific expertise as well. “With Pharm-Eco, a joint venture in the area of compound detection can be anticipated,“ Lübbert said. The German Research Ministry BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung) will support the company with DM7 million in research grants.
After founding the company, Lübbert was appointed to a chair in animal physiology at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. “This demonstrates the increasing preparedness of German universities to establish closer links to commercial enterprises,“ he said.
Biofrontera will work on internal projects as well as cooperate with large pharmaceutical companies. By the end of the year, the company will employ 25 people with a ratio of PhDs greater than 60 percent. The staff is expected to double by the end of 1999. “However, we will not start to diversify our efforts,“ Lubbert said. “Complex, multidisciplinary tasks we will rather solve through a network of cooperating partners.“ *