Europe: Where is the drug discovery innovation?

The European Medicines Agency in Amsterdam

Thanks to a prestigious academic legacy, Europe has long been a dominant region for life sciences. In this article, DDW’s Diana Spencer highlights several prominent hotspots that are taking the lead on advancing European drug discovery and development.

Europe is traditionally a life sciences powerhouse, with a strong tradition in pharmaceutical discovery. The oldest, still active pharmaceutical company worldwide, Merck, started life in 1668 in Darmstadt, Germany.

In 2022, the continent held a 22.4% share of global pharma revenues, according to analysts Statistica1. Members of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) spent €41.5 billion on R&D during 2021, with Germany and Switzerland being the biggest contributors, and around one fourth of clinical trials worldwide were performed in Europe1.

However, Europe is facing increasing competition from emerging economies. During the period 2016-2021, the Brazilian, Chinese and Indian markets grew by 11.7%, 6.7% and 11.8% respectively compared to an average market growth of 5.8% for the top five European Union markets and 5.6% for the US market2.

Despite this competition, biotech hubs are thriving in many locations throughout Europe, thanks to a strong academic foundation, a spirit of collaboration and generous investment. This article takes a closer look at several key clusters in the region.

Amsterdam: The centre of European life sciences

As a result of the UK withdrawing from the EU, in 2019 the EMA headquarters was moved from London to Amsterdam. Even before this, however, Amsterdam was established as an important centre for drug development. The city boasts two internationally renowned universities, the University of Amsterdam and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, as well as Amsterdam University Medical Centre and the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI), as well as specialised life sciences hubs such as Amsterdam Science Park and the Amsterdam Life Sciences District.

The city is host to many innovative biotech companies, including relative newcomers Orexa, a company that recently launched its first Phase II clinical trial. Study 2022-503113-31-00-IN-002 is a multi-centre clinical trial to investigate the efficacy of Orexa’s lead compound ORE-001 in the prevention of postoperative ileus. Professor Ard Peeters, Founder of Orexa, describes the trial as “a major milestone for a company like Orexa”, continuing: “Finally, we will be able to test our drug in patients. This first study is in a group where we can possibly prevent a so-called postoperative ileus. This is a serious complication, which affects up to 50% of patients in several patient groups and leads to patients being unable to eat and therefore recovering more slowly, resulting in prolonged hospitalisation.”

A more established Amsterdam-based enterprise is gene therapy company uniQure, developer of etranacogene dezaparvovec, the first gene therapy for haemophilia B, which was approved for use in the US in November 2022 and in the EU in February 2023. The rights for etranacogene dezaparvovec were subsequently sold to CSL Pharmaceuticals. The company is now investigating a promising gene therapy for Huntingdon’s disease in a Phase I/II trial, with patients already showing signs of preserved neurological function.

This pedigree has attracted beneficial international collaborations. In a boost to cancer research for both regions, in November 2023, Cancer Research UK and the KWF Dutch Cancer Society (KWF) announced a multi-project strategic partnership. Under the partnership, KWF will provide funding to enable the development of select early phase clinical programmes through Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development (CDD). The CDD will sponsor and manage KWF-supported trials. Professor Dr Carla van Gils, Director of KWF, comments: “Many of academia’s most innovative agents can be difficult to bring into clinical development. Partnering with the Centre for Drug Development enables us to jump into the bench-to-bedside gap and fast track academic findings into clinical trials. We look forward to strengthening early clinical oncology research on an international level and are thrilled to see what the future holds for improving therapeutic strategies for patients.”

Paris: Old meets new

Paris has a long history in life sciences and particularly drug discovery, perhaps most importantly as home to the world-famous Institut Pasteur and subsequently pharma giant Sanofi. However, France had been falling behind other nations like the US and UK, so to redress the balance, the French government launched the €7.5 billion ($7.9 billion) Healthcare Innovation 2030 project, with ambitious plans to turn France into the European leader in health innovation by 2030.

Hedi Ben Brahim, CEO of One Biosciences (OBS), a Paris-based biotech leveraging AI to unlock novel targets, expands: “The goal of the infusion of capital was to take one of the most established biomedical research hubs in Europe and nurture its growth to the top by 2030, particularly around Institut Gustave Roussy. In Paris itself, Institut Curie is a major cancer hospital, from which One Biosciences was spun-off. Beyond this specific plan, France has a strong policy to support innovation with research tax credits and specific programmes. For instance, One Biosciences has already received €2 million in non-dilutive financing.”

In late 2023, OBS agreed a partnership with Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris (AP-HP), a consortium of nearly all hospitals in the greater Paris region, giving the company access to patient samples and records to identify new therapeutic targets in rare kidney disease. Brahim explains why the unique ecosystem of Paris made this possible: “Paris is one of the scientific capitals of the world, making it easier to recruit well-trained people and also bring new talents who are already attracted to the city as a home. The location offers many opportunities for in-person networking and collaboration through its high concentration of top universities and research groups as well as access to government officials and easy connection with the rest of Europe. Our partnership with AP-HP – one of the top health care institutions in the world in regard to research output – is a great example of the synergies that can be found.”

Since the launch of Healthcare Innovation 2030, investment has continued apace in the region. In 2023, large pharmaceutical company Servier opened its Research and Development Institute in the cross-disciplinary innovation hub at Paris-Saclay, which it hopes will be home to nearly 25% of all scientific research activities in France. In an example of venture capital in the city, another AI-driven biotech Aqemia raised €30 million in January 2024 in an extension to its Series A financing, bringing total funding for the round to an impressive €60 million.

Brahim feels it is an exciting time for Paris biotech: “I’m excited to see the acceleration of Abivax who recently got listed on NASDAQ on the strength of its pipeline of therapies to modulate the immune response in patients with chronic inflammatory diseases, as well as the partnership between Cellectis and AstraZeneca for off-the-shelf CAR-T cell technology. Biotechs such as ourselves and Owkin are leveraging artificial intelligence.”

Basel: The home of big pharma

No overview of cities for drug discovery in Europe can overlook Basel. Although a smaller country in terms of population size, Switzerland’s pharmaceutical production value is larger than Germany’s and Ireland’s combined1. This is largely due to Roche and Novartis, both Basel-based and two of the largest pharmaceutical companies worldwide based on prescription drug revenues. Roche made international headlines in early 2024 due to the discovery of a new antibiotic class targeting Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii (CRAB), which is high on the World Health Organization (WHO) list of priority pathogens.

The presence of such heavyweights attracts other companies to the country. A study conducted by IQVIA and published in the 2023 Swiss Biotech Report shows that 20% of European biotech companies are now headquartered in Switzerland.

Dr Alessandro Mazzetti, Team Lead, Innovation Collaborations, and Professor Christian Elias Schneider, Head of Innovation Office, University of Basel, explain what they think makes Basel so special: “Basel is one of the world-recognised hubs for life-sciences, biotech and health tech together with the US locations like the Bay Area or Boston and the Golden Triangle in the UK. This enabled the Basel start-up ecosystem to grow considerably and consistently, with a strong acceleration in the last five to 10 years. The transfer of technologies from the lab to the market, is no longer purely via IP out licensing, but rather via start-up M&A deals – start-ups being the de-risking vehicle for large corporates. An internal study performed recently, highlighted how Basel is outstanding in scientific collaboration with industry, measured via joint publications and at the same time how the local industry excels globally in the number of patents filed.”

Mazzetti and Schneider give the example of T3 Pharmaceuticals, a University of Basel spin-off that developed a proprietary cancer therapy platform based on regulating and harnessing the natural behaviours of live bacteria. The company successfully raised around 40 M CHF and reached Phase I development before being acquired by Boehringer Ingelheim for about 450 M CHF at the end of 2023. “T3 was able to thrive thanks to the rich ecosystem of accelerator programmes, health foundations, private and corporate investors, and the incredible local and international talent pool found here.” 

Anne Marie de Jonge Schuermans, Global Head of Biologics & Injectables Operations for Basel-based generics company Sandoz, and Board Member of the Swiss Biotech Association, expands on why Basel is such a good location for start-ups. “Bioparks are a great strategy that is used throughout Switzerland, offering start-ups flexibility, a space to be nurtured but also for the exchange of ideas and skills. As companies move through the phases of development, they benefit from a long-established ecosystem of competency in clinical regulation. So, in this way there is a cross fertilisation from the bigger companies to newer ones. Start-ups will also take candidates from the pharma companies that are not getting attention for one reason or another and develop those into viable commercial products.”

This process can be seen in the case of Actelion, which was founded in Basel in 1997 by husband-and-wife team Jean-Paul and Martine Clozel after obtaining the rights to a cardiovascular programme from Roche. They developed the molecule, which went on to become Tracleer, a blockbuster drug for pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), and Actelion was subsequently acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $30 million.

Vilnius: Thinking big

Though much smaller than its competitors, Lithuania has ambitions to be a key player in European biotech, with the goal of a 5% contribution to GDP from the life science industry by 2030. Thanks to significant investment, the sector is growing faster here than almost anywhere else in Europe. In a recent update of key biotechnology indicators by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Lithuania came third globally for biotechnology R&D intensity, following Belgium and Switzerland3.

Cell and gene therapy is a particular area of focus for the region, centred around the VU LSC-EMBL Partnership for Genome Editing Technologies, a partnership between the Vilnius University Life Sciences Center (VU LSC) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). VU’s Professor Virginijus Šikšnys was one of the first to discover CRISPR Cas9 gene editing in 2012, though reportedly his scientific paper was held back while Doudna and Charpentier were able to publish their findings and become the official founders of the technique.

Dr Stephen Jones moved from the US to Vilnius to become Group Leader at the VU LSC-EMBL Partnership Institute for Genome Editing Technologies. In January 2024, he was one of 10 recipients to receive a 2024 European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) Laboratory Installation Grant to support his work developing reliable and predictable gene editing tools. 

Dr Jones explains what attracted him to the Baltic city: “Vilnius actually has a long history in the gene editing realm, making it one of the hubs of discovery and development in the field. The government and organisations here are so positive and enthusiastic. The necessary support structures are in place and that creates opportunities. In general, I find that Vilnius is a very science positive place to be and its size can be an advantage. I grew up near Boston, so the scale is different, but that can make key players a bit more accessible. There’s something special about being part of an ecosystem that is seeking to really achieve and become greater.”

Vilnius is home to subsidiaries of large companies like Teva Baltics, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Biogen, but is also seeing an influx of new start-ups, nurtured or attracted by the favourable economic ecosystem. More than 400 companies now make up Lithuania’s life sciences sector4. One such company, drawing on Vilnius’ gene editing expertise, is Caszyme, which was founded by Professor Šikšnys.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific were a major producer of vaccine components during Covid-19, which had a very substantial impact, and that knowledge is a huge asset to Lithuania’s life sciences,” says Monika Paule, CEO and Co-founder Caszyme. “At the moment, I think our strongest area is the gene editing and genomics field, based at the LSU, which has attracted international scientists to come to Vilnius to work on EU-wide projects. This knowledge base will accelerate the sector and encourage new companies. From a cost perspective, it’s so much cheaper to be here than in US – it’s incomparable with Boston and Cambridge, for example.”

DDW Volume 25 – Issue 2, Spring 2024



Diana SpencerAbout the author:

Diana Spencer is Senior Digital Content Editor at DDW. She brings 18 years’ experience in both print and digital editorial roles for B2B publications dedicated to the life sciences sector, including medical and pharmaceutical industry journals/magazines.


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