Drug discovery hotspots: What is the secret to Switzerland’s success? (p2)

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DDW’s Diana Spencer takes a closer look into why Switzerland is such a life sciences powerhouse and how Swiss researchers are advancing new technology and tackling modern health challenges.

OECD data places Switzerland second in the world for biotechnology R&D intensity1, and in 2021, the country had the seventh largest share of the global biotech market2. A study conducted by IQVIA and published in the 2023 Swiss Biotech Report recently showed that 20% of European biotech companies are now headquartered in Switzerland3.

So what makes it so successful? This article will examine how the right investment and a focus on new technology ensures Switzerland maintains its role as a global leader in drug discovery.

Part 1 explores the regional focus of the country’s life sciences industry and its infrastructure of bioparks.

Taking the lead on new technology

A unique ecosystem based on solid finance, governmental structure, technological advances and business infrastructure all contribute to Switzerland’s success. This support for new and established life sciences companies means that new ideas can thrive, both in terms of medical research and the technologies that make that discovery possible.

“As the efficacy and commercial success of biologics and other complex biopharmaceutical and medtech products increase, Switzerland has been able to maintain an exceptional pool of qualified personnel at all levels, thanks to our excellent universities, the strength of our vocational education training and our attractiveness to foreign professionals,” says Michael Altorfer, CEO, Swiss Biotech Association. “Building on excellent education, our strong work ethic, looking beyond our borders for market opportunities, and being open to foreign talent will keep Switzerland formidably competitive for many years to come.”

Switzerland has been successful in making innovation one of its top exports and maintaining a reputation for invention, according to Nasri Nahas, CEO, Biopôle Biopark, Epalinges-Lausanne. “One of Switzerland’s most attractive features when it comes to the life sciences is the country’s reputation for innovation in this field: after all, life sciences innovation makes up 42% of Switzerland’s total exports,” he says. “Switzerland has seen a record number of patents per capita (1,031 per million inhabitants in 2022) and a record number of start-ups per capita (Switzerland was ranked fourth in the world in 2021). Such investments contribute to the emergence of numerous health technologies being developed into innovative products.”

The AI revolution

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming an integral tool in drug discovery, and Swiss researchers have been some of the first to capitalise on and progress this new resource. In a breakthrough for drug research, researchers at ETH Zurich created an open-access generative AI for developing drug molecules based on the three-dimensional surface of proteins with which the molecules are to interact. For any protein with a known three-dimensional shape, the algorithm generates the blueprints for potential drug molecules that increase or inhibit the activity of the protein. Chemists can then synthesise and test these molecules in the laboratory. Gisbert Schneider, Professor at ETH Zurich’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, says: “Our work has made the world of proteins accessible for generative AI in drug research. The new algorithm has enormous potential.”

Swiss companies are also applying AI beyond preclinical drug discovery, to clinical trials and upskilling staff. Protocol AI, which was created by Risklick, a spin-off from the University of Bern, uses artificial intelligence to enable faster drafting of clinical trial protocols with the aim of accelerating drug development, reducing costs and improving safety standards. Currently developing a new protocol demands an average of 12 months of intensive work, but the company says Protocol AI reduces the development time and costs of clinical trials by up to 35%. Meanwhile, Lugano-based Anthropos raised $2.7m in May 2024 to continue development of its platform to help companies develop the skillset of their workforce in the age of AI. The platform is designed to allow companies to map out dedicated paths for every role inside the organisation and includes AI Job Simulations to screen candidates by placing them into immersive real-life scenarios.

Robotics and automation

On the manufacturing side, Lausanne company Limula raised $6.8m to invest into its solution for automating cell therapy manufacturing. Therapies like chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cells require highly skilled labour and sterile infrastructures to produce, leading to a price tag of $500,000 or more per dose, making them inaccessible for a majority of eligible patients. To address this, the company has developed a modular solution for on-demand and at-scale manufacturing of cell therapies, combining the functionalities of a bioreactor and a centrifuge in a single device. Luc Henry, Co-founder and CEO of Limula, explains: ” We believe automation is the only route to scalability and digital traceability. These two aspects are keys unlocking the full potential of cell and gene therapy, making them accessible to the many, not just the few”.

Organ-on-a-chip technology

Bern-based company Alveolix is one of the companies leading the development of organ-on-a-chip technology for preclinical research. The company is partnering with Icelandic company EpiEndo Pharmaceuticals on novel therapeutics for ulcerative colitis (UC) using its gut-on-chip technology. “We have greatly valued partnering with EpiEndo in the EpicoliX Project. Our aim has been to tackle the challenge of creating a gut-on-chip model, mimicking the colon epithelium of UC patients, to provide a legitimate alternative to animal testing, which is our underlying premise,” Nina Hobi, Co-CEO at AlveoliX, comments. “We are proud to have helped progress the development of Enterothelin as a potential new therapeutic for UC. This is a significant step toward a brighter future for patients.”

Taking the lead on global health challenges

Switzerland reinforces its leadership position by investing in and supporting institutions and companies that are seeking to address some of the most significant challenges in healthcare for global benefit.

Inequality in access

In May 2024, Basel-based Axmed raised $2m for its two-sided B2B marketplace platform, which is designed to aggregate demand for critical medicines in underserved regions to improve the availability, affordability, and distribution of life-saving medicine while extending manufacturer footprints in new markets. The company also received an earlier $5 million in grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Thibaud Lefort, Head of Operations for Sanofi’s Global Health Unit, supports the company’s mission: “Axmed’s model presents a powerful opportunity to deliver much needed positive change across global health. We are eager to see their platform transform the access landscape, improving supplier-ability to reach more patients with lifesaving therapies, especially in underserved environments.”

Antimicrobial resistance

Swiss research is making a significant contribution to the problem of antimicrobial resistance, one of the greatest global health challenges.

A novel antibiotic class targeting a major pathogen was discovered by scientists from Basel-based Roche and Harvard University in early 2024. The new class of drug candidates can effectively target Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii (CRAB), which is high on the World Health Organization (WHO) list of priority pathogens. One of the molecules, called zosurabalpin, killed multiple resistant strains of A. baumannii in culture, and, in mice, a strain resistant to all available antimicrobials.

Another company from Basel, BioVersys is collaborating with GSK on the clinical development of a drug candidate for the treatment of tuberculosis (TB) and has raised CHF 44.9 ($50) million in a Series C funding round to date. The compound represents a new concept of overcoming resistance and increasing the potency of existing antibiotic, ethionamide, and is currently being evaluated in a Phase IIa proof-of-concept study in pulmonary TB patients in South Africa.

In a further exciting advancement, ETH Zurich researchers have been the first to isolate a bacteriophage that can attack and kill bacteria in a dormant state, which, in combination with an antibiotic, has been found to eradicate many dormant germs in pure culture and mouse models.

Women’s health and femtech

According to a new report by McKinsey, women spend 25% more time in ‘poor health’ than men. Switzerland has invested in this area of medicine to become a leading women’s health hub, with over 30 focused companies already established in the country.

A key centre is EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne which, with Swiss insurance giant Groupe Mutuel, runs Tech4Eva, an initiative that facilitates selected startups in femtech to refine their business models and go-to-market process strategies. “The original idea of Tech4Eva is to promote technologies for women’s health at a global level, by leveraging our expertise of bringing high tech startups to success, and our strong international network of corporate experts and VCs,” comments Lan Zuo Gillet, Co-founder and Program Director. “As the first femtech accelerator in continental Europe, we have become a thought leader in global femtech space within few years. The startups of the Tech4Eva program have raised $180 million to date, showing growing investor interest in this previously overlooked asset class.”

Another Swiss initiative is the Zurich based Women’s Brain Project (WBP), an international non-profit organisation working towards the implementation of sex and gender strategies within precision medicine. CEO Dr Antonella Santuccione Chadha leads the project. “Our mission is to transform the development of drugs and medical treatments through sex and gender factors as a gateway to precision medicine and care,” sha says. “We are actively searching for partners and sponsors for our research to establish the first research institute for sex and gender precision medicine in Switzerland.”

References

  1. https://www.oecd.org/innovation/inno/keybiotechnologyindicators.htm
  2. https://www.precedenceresearch.com/biotechnology-market#:~:text=The%20global%20biotechnology%20market%20was,11.8%25%20from%202024%20to%202033.
  3. https://www.iqvia.com/-/media/iqvia/pdfs/library/white-papers/iqvia-article-for-sba-report—may-2023.pdf

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