HAMBURG, Germany - In the vicinity of the well-known Genzentrum Munich, of Martinsried, Germany, a new biotechnology company focusing on wound healing and skin diseases has been founded.

Major goals of Switch Biotech GmbH will be the identification of the molecular compounds involved in wound healing and dermatological diseases and the definition of targets for new therapeutic drugs. As competitors in this field are lacking so far, the company expects to be in a good business situation.

Worldwide, skin diseases represent a major health problem. Approximately 25 percent of the population in industrialized countries suffers from skin diseases such as psoriasis and age-related dermatological problems, or from diabetes ulcera, a disturbed wound healing that is very common among diabetics. But despite this vast market - about $11 billion per year for diabetes ulcera in the U.S. alone - few companies have focused on research into the mechanism of skin repair and wound-healing processes.

“I think there are two reasons for that,“ Andreas Goppelt, cofounder of the Munich-based Switch Biotech, told BioWorld International. “First, historically, wound healing has been a domain of medical doctors, mainly surgeons - not molecular biologists, as in cancer, for example. And second, one cannot cultivate skin in the lab, so the molecular mechanisms are very difficult to track down. So the only therapeutic options today are ointment bandages - a method known for more than a hundred years - or application of growth factors.

“In the U.S., the market is dominated by growth factors, but even the best available on the market can improve wound healing by around 10 to 20 percent. And for psoriasis, there is not even any functioning therapy yet.“

Worldwide, only 10 research groups are working on wound healing, so insights into the mechanisms of skin growth and wound healing are limited.

“The basic questions are simple,“ Goppelt said. “We want to identify the genes which are expressed wrongly during disturbed wound-healing processes. So we have to compare the patterns of genes activated and deactivated during normal and pathological wound healing.“

Goppelt said a lot of basic research has to be done before target genes can be identified.

“We believe to have the right experts for a successful screening and identification of the genes involved,“ he added.

Scientific partners include Sabine Werner, an expert on wound healing and growth factors at the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry, in Martinsried, and Eckard Wolf, a veterinarian from Munich University's Genzentrum who is recognized for his transgenic animal models.

Studies Will Start With Pig Genes

“Our advantage is an exclusive access to transgenic mice and pigs designed to display disturbed wound healing,“ Goppelt said. “So we are able to validate potential targets in animal skin very fast. Transgenic pigs are especially useful, because their skin very much resembles the human one.“

Switch Biotech will start with screening genes in pigs to identify master genes involved in wound healing and then clone the human analogues.

“We intend to do a very broad and systematical screening, because this seems very essential to us. We want to get hold of as many genes involved as possible,“ Goppelt added. “As we are devoted to product development, we then have to look for a powerful industry partner.“

Switch Biotech got its seed financing from three sources: one-third equaling DM300,000 from the private seed capital fund BioM AG, of Martinsried; one-third from the federal Technologiebeteiligungsgesellschaft; and the rest from the state-owned Bayernkapital fund. The resulting sum will be nearly doubled by the German federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology.

“This provides us with DM1.5 million,“ Goppelt said. *