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Public research centres in Finland are to have their funding reduced by 9 per cent in 2015, to support a new council for research into grand challenges.
On 26 February, the statistics agency Tilastokeskus published a report on the 2015 research budget, revealing that government funding will increase by €47 million overall in 2015. However, national research centres will only receive €256m, a reduction of €22m compared with their 2014 allowance. The national innovation agency Tekes will also receive €25m less than in 2014.
These savings will go towards a funding increase of €93m for the Academy of Finland, the national funding agency, to enable it to oversee the development of a strategic research council.
The council, announced by the government in July 2014, will fund research into societal challenges with the aim of increasing Finland’s international competitiveness. The council will launch its first calls this spring, across three research themes: emerging technologies and changing institutions; a climate-neutral society; and equality.
It is hoped that the research centres could recoup some of their lost income by winning grants from the strategic research council, as the Academy of Finland has previously told Research Europe that it expects research centres to do well from the programmes.
The report also says that the reduction for research centres is partly due to a merger that the government hopes will result in efficiency gains. The centres for agriculture, forest research and fisheries have been combined into a natural resources centre called Luonnonvarakeskus, which will receive €84m in 2015.
According to the figures, universities will have their funding cut by €1m, or 2 per cent, from their 2014 level. University hospitals will have their budgets reduced by a hefty 40 per cent, the report says.
The budget allocations are in line with recommendations published by prime minister Alexander Stubb’s research and innovation council in November, which said that the government should focus on increasing Finland’s competitiveness and economic growth. The council will monitor how well the guidelines have been implemented and do a follow-up analysis in the autumn, the government said.
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I recently attended the World Open Innovation Forum 2013 in Amsterdam, organized by Fleming Europe. The event was attended by senior executives, business leaders, university administrators, and more. The topic of the conference was the increasing use of open innovation (OI) business models in the pharmaceutical industry.
There were a number of very interesting presentations from both sides of the industry-academia partnership business model. It was possible to summarize a few key points. First, the pharmaceutical and biotech industries have now embraced (mostly) the OI business model. Most have platforms in place to capitalize on more open partnership models. Most of the speakers from industry pointed to the main benefits of OI, from their point of view. These include: sharing the risk (and the reward) in developing novel drug targets, leveraging the expertise of thought leaders from academia, and quickly developing new programs in interesting therapeutic areas. Some of the drawbacks of the OI model are that: it is difficult or nearly impossible to measure the success or failure of these OI initiatives, there are sometimes contentious issues with regard to IP and ownership, and the clash of cultures between industry and academia can challenge even the best intentioned public-private partnership.
The speakers also had similar views on best practices for developing and maintaining productive public-private partnerships. First. it is important that an organization have support for OI initiatives from the very top. Unless organisations buy into the benefits of OI, the OI initiatives can be difficult or impossible to sustain. Second, both partners (industry and academia) need to know what they want out of the partnership; and, they need to develop a framework to address needs of both stakeholders. Third, both parties should be realistic and flexible. There is no one-size-fits-all template for OI - every industry-academia partnership is different. At the same time, universities need to be aware of the realities of the needs of industry, and vice versa.
Perhaps the most important take-home message is that these partnerships need to be nurtured and developed - they don’t simply happen, and they can wither from inattention and poor management. At CDR, we appreciate this message, and we are acting on it. My main role is to help industrial partners to understand what we and the Faculty of Pharmacy (and the University of Helsinki more broadly) can offer them in terms of partnership. Then, to help develop and nurture innovative partnerships that do form - with needs of BOTH industrial and academic partners in mind.
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The University of Helsinki has appointed CDR Research Manager Paul Bromann to serve as the Finnish representative to the European Technology Platform in Nanomedicine (ETPN in short) Mirror Group. ETPN is an initiative led by industry and set up together with the European Commission in 2005 to address the applications of nanotechnology for breakthroughs in healthcare. The ETPN supports its members in coordinating their joint research efforts and improving communication amongst the members as well as towards the European Commission and the European Member States. One of the main outcomes of this support is the elaboration and update of a Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) which serves as a reference for the EC to define their future calls. A recent outcome of the past nine months activities is the newly released White Paper, giving concrete recommendations and proposing a new set of infrastructures for nanomedicine in Europe under H2020.
The ETPN Mirror Group ensures the participation of Public Authorities at national, regional and European levels in their function as policy makers, regulators and funding bodies. The aim of the Mirror Group is to develop synergies between national programs and policies, pool resources to support the implementation of the SRA, and to promote a fertile innovation environment and a state-of-the-art research infrastructure in Europe. A key role is to facilitate the industrial academic interface from a European level down to regional levels. Mirror Group members have a broad view of the national programs and activities in the nanomedicine field, together with strong links with policy makers. They are official representatives of Member States authorities. They are in a position to establish strong links with national policy makers in order to reflect the state of the art of nanomedicine in the national programs and to disseminate strategic documents.
The list of countries represented in the ETP Nanomedicine Mirror Group is available here.
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On November 6th, the European Science Foundation (ESF) published a report titled, "Human Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine." This report discussed the state of stem cell research policy in the European Union (EU). According to the authors, Europe has an “unprecedented opportunity to leverage on the benefits of the investments and efforts made to date”. However, the report also details how fragmented and restrictive national stem cell policies may limit the funds availbale for this important area of scientific research. For example, the ESF found that 63% of 19 EU countries studied had somewhat or very permissive policies with respect to the funding of stem cell research. Of the 19, Belgium, Sweden and the UK are very permissive, and even allow the creation of embryos for research under specific conditions. On the other hand, Croatia, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Slovakia are very restrictive, according to the ESF report. In additonal to national differences in stem cell research policy, the ESF report also describes how innovation policies and regulations are restrictive throughout Europe. As an example, the report cites the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that patents based on the destruction of embryos are illegal in the EU. 
The report confirms that the EU has a a “vibrant community of scientists and innovators” working in the field of stem cell research, and the authors concludes that this communtiy will benefit from continued research funding. The ESF report also suggest that in addition to a more favorable stem cell policy and continued funding, it is vital for the EU to communicate with the public about the progress being made in the field as well as impacts on healthcare. Further, contued funding is vital to better understand the safety and most suitable legislation for each stem cell therapy.
At the Finnish national level, stem cell research is regulated by the Medical Research Act 1999/488. The act allows research on embryos that are left over following fertility treatment for up to 14 days after fertilization. After this, the embryos must be destroyed. The act also allows for embryos to be frozen for up 15 years, after which destruction must follow. The creation of embryos for research is banned unless specifically for finding new cures and treatments for serious diseases. The act defines an embryo as “a living group of cells resulting from fertilization not implanted in a woman’s body.” Hence somatic cell nuclear transfer is not forbidden in Finnish law.
In additon to the stem cell research done at CDR, other notable stem cell research efforst in Finland include the Biocenter Finland Stem Cell and Biomaterial Network (of which CDR is also a member), and the BioMediTech Regenerative Medicine Initiative at the University of Tampere.
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On October 29th, Eurostat released a report on the status of research and development (R&D;) funding in the Eurozone. According to the report, combined public and private spending on R&D; has stabilized at around 2 per cent of GDP, based on the latest figures for 2009 to 2011. The EU’s original goal was to have increased R&D; funding to 3% of GDP by 2010. Because of the lack of progress, the EU Council of Ministers have delayed the target date for this goal to 2020, as part of the Europe 2020 strategy. In addition to the overall funding levels, the report also finds a mixed pattern of public sector R&D; spending depending on national governments. Although many member states increased spending after the financial crisis of 2008, there remains a north-south divide in spending, with northern EU countries generally spending more than their southern counterparts.
According to the report, the nordic countries are particularly strong in R&D; funding, with Denmark being the only EU country to have met its R&D; funding target. Finland was not far behind. Although the public and private R&D; spending did not reach the stetted goal of 4% of GDP, the 2011 funding level was 3.78% of GDP. Not only is this number quite close to the 2010 goal, it is also twice the EU average funding level. To improve the R&D; funding situation in Finland even more, the report suggests concrete steps to be taken, including:
  • New tax incentives for promoting investment in R&D; in the private sector
  • Provision of annual funding for a new research and innovation policy action programme
  • Revision of the current university funding model and shift towards more outcome oriented financial targeting
  • Launch of a new research infrastructure policy
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The European Federation for Pharmaceutical Sciences (EUFEPS) has awarded its first ever Distinguished Service Award to professor Arto Urtti, Professor in the Centre for Drug Research. Dr. Urtti was awarded for providing exceptional and valuable professional service to EUFEPS, and for demonstrating initiative and dedication in these roles. For 10 years, Professor Urtti served as editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the official journal of EUFEPS. Professor Urtti received this distinguished honor at the 5th World Conference on Drug Absorption, Transport and Delivery (WCDATD): Responding to Challenging Situations. Professor Urtti currently serves as Professor in CDR, where his interests include nanotechnology and drug delivery research, especially related difficult targets like eye and tumors. Nanotechnology and drug delivery research is an active area within CDR. Within this field; we develop innovative technologies in: ocular drug delivery and ADME, nanocarriers/biomaterials and drug delivery, complex organotypic cell models, and transdermal drug delivery.

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At the Centre for Drug Research (CDR), University of Helsinki, Dr. Alex Bunker leads the Computational Nanomedicine Group. In his research, he applies molecular modelling as a tool in nanoscale drug delivery research, known as "nanomedicine". A particular focus of his group is the PEGylated liposome, and he has modelled its surface in the bloodstream with molecular dynamics simulation. The same way that a map can be used to represent a country, he and his team have simulated a flat slab of the membrane of the liposome.


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In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that human genes cannot be patented because they are "products of nature." This sets an important precedent for the biotech industry, and especially those organizations engaged in diagnostics based on naturally occuring human gene sequences. For example, Myriad Genetics (the company which developed the groundbreaking genetic testing for BRCA mutations linked to cancer) has had 5 of their patents invalidated as a result of this ruling.

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Research project: Bioconjugated polymeric nanomaterials for industrial applications

Controlled synthesis and self-assembly of polymer-based bioconjugates will provide  broad array of novel biomaterials for industrial applications (drug delivery, molecular imaging, diagnostics, sensors, cell biological research tools). Despite its vast potential, the technology of bioconjugated polymers and nano materials is an under-developed nanotechnology field in Finland that needs to be improved. The project will generate an industrially applicable technology platform of bioconjugated polymeric nanostructures. The research involves versatile synthesis and testing of nanomaterial libraries. The program will be carried out in close collaboration with industrial partners, and special attention is paid to the generation of relevant intellectual property. The project will also be linked to the academic community in Finland, beyond the immediate project participants. This project will generate a platform of new polymer-based bioconjugated nanomaterials and relevant test methods for industrial applications. Companies from various fields are integral participants in the project, and the CDR is also participating through the research activities of Professor Arto Urtti.

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The state of pharmaceutical protein production is ever changing. After CDR published the review on the use of cell free protein synthesis for the production of pharmaceutical proteins (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378517312003304) sutro biopharma has gone ahead and started to cash in on the promise of these exciting techniques.

Investments by Skyline Ventures, Lilly Ventures, Amgen Ventures, SV Life Sciences and Alta Partners has led to several impressive licensing agreements. A collaboration with Celgene Corporation Sutro will design and develop novel antibody drug conjugates (ADCs) and bispecific antibodies for two undisclosed targets and to manufacture a proprietary Celgene antibody.  If all programs are successful, the deal could be worth over $500 million to Sutro. In addition Sutro biopharma will collaborate with Sanofi Pasteur on a Novel Production Approach for Vaccine Candidates.

Sutro Biopharma uses E. coli cell lysates from strains developed in Stanford university in the James Swartz research group. However, new technologies based on deriving lysate from fermentable protozoan leishmania strains has gained interest for the production of pharmaceutical proteins.

For example at the prestigious centre for cellular and molecular platforms (C-CAMP), bangalore (India), leishmania strains are currently implemented for their high throughput screening platforms. This is the first research group in India who will systematically do research on CFPS, and co-develop valuable research tools.

Collaboration between CDR in Finland and C-CAMP in India has started to produce, screen and further develop biobased drugs by use of cell free protein synthesis. This will bring a novel production and screening tool for pharmaceutical proteins to Europe and we expect it to open up many new projects in the near future.

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