Biotechnology - The spirit of growth

The biotechnology industry in Norway is playing an increasingly significant role in the search for solutions to global health problems. Ever since biotechnology was identified as a core focus area over two decades ago, the Norwegian Government, the Research Council of Norway, biotech companies, the university environment, as well as independent research institutions have all worked towards a bright common future.

There are now more than 100 Norwegian biotechnology companies and research institutions doing a thriving business within areas that include diagnostics, therapeutic and vaccine healthcare, agri- and marine biotech, environment, and bioprocessing. Together with this expansion, an increasingly active international cooperative network is resulting in a positive impact being felt far beyond Norway’s borders.
 
Ole Jørgen Marvik, Coordinator of Life Sciences for Innovation Norway, reflects upon the spirit of growth here in this country; “Over the last 10 years Norway has seen a tremendous growth in the entrepreneurial spirit, giving rise to more than 80 new companies focusing on biotechnology. While human and veterinary medicine has dominated this first generation, we will most certainly during the next decade see how biotechnology will expand into the agricultural and renewable energy industries and provide sustainable solutions to environmental problems in the form of waste management and cleaner industry processes. Correspondingly, Innovation Norway supports the biotech industry through several of its different industry programs aiming to maximise technological synergies.”

Thor Amlie, CEO of the Norwegian Bioindustry Association.
© NBA
 
Bringing it All Together
Founded in 2001, the Norwegian Bioindustry Association (NBA) is the member organization for biotechnology companies. Members, all mainly within the medical or pharmaceutical field, include start-up companies and SMEs as well as larger established corporations with international clientele. NBA members typically are involved in the development of new products and technology.
 
The NBA strives to facilitate successful communication between the biotech industry and politicians, authorities and the general public. This in turn creates synergies for bridge-building between industry and research institution – in addition to improving the possibilities for entrepreneurial and start-up support. One area showing particularly notable growth is the number of companies doing business within marine biotechnology.
 
An important role for the NBA is to profile the high standard that Norwegian biotech companies bring to the marketplace. The global environment welcomes this consistent quality, as witnessed by the fact that international pharmaceutical companies are becoming increasingly involved in developmental projects and clinical trials here in this country. At the same time, a wide range of smaller companies also enjoy success.
 
The majority of the Norwegian biotech companies can be characterized as small, but growing. There are also numerous companies listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange, including Algeta, Biotec Pharmacon, Clavis Pharma, DiaGenic and NutriPharma to name a few. As its success and international stature grows, the Norwegian biotechnology industry is experiencing wide optimism – just as the global environment is becoming more aware of this positive momentum.
 
Reaching Out
Continued internationalization is a top priority in the Norwegian Government report “Commitment to Research”. This report guides governmental activities as well as the Research Council of Norway’s overall strategy related to biotechnology, enhancing scientific merit and in turn promoting innovation and the development of knowledge-based industries in Norway. Recent developments in this direction include the easing of restrictive regulations related to stem-cell research and pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) in Norway. In addition, the Norwegian Parliament has also adopted a governmental proposal that Norway became a member of the European Patent Organisation effective in 2008.
 
The Research Council of Norway is central in the R&D process, administrating and distributing public funding through a wide range of projects that include large-scale biotechnology research programmes; FUGE, a functional genomics project; PROSBIO, research within bioprocessing; and MABIT, marine biotechnology. See the separate article profiling the Research Council of Norway.  
 
The Largest in Scandinavia
Another important support and knowledge leader in Norway is the SINTEF Group, Scandinavia’s largest research organization. Extremely active within various areas of biotechnology and bioprospecting, SINTEF also has broad focus that encompasses numerous other areas of expertise. A multi-disciplinary research institution with employees from 50 countries, SINTEF provides research-based knowledge and related services based on deep insight into technology, natural science, medicine and the social sciences. 
 
The education research environment includes the Protein Engineering and Proteomics (PEP) group at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, involved in several research projects mainly related to protein science. These projects range from fundamental structure-function studies on the folding, stability and functionality of individual proteins to applied studies in enzyme technology for biomass processing. Very active in protein engineering, PEP also focuses on protein and proteomics oriented research in the field of lactic acid bacteria.
 
Taking it to the World
One strength of Norwegian biotechnology is the ability to research and develop a product – and then translate that to business success. The list of successful companies in Norway is a long one, including Pharmexa; a company that has built a strong pipeline in a broad range of therapeutic fields. Other excellent examples include Axis-Shield, a global company with an ongoing mission to improve healthcare through development and sales of in-vitro diagnostics products; ClavisPharma, developing pharmaceuticals using Lipid Vector Technology (LVT); and Nova Matrix, one of the world’s leading producers and suppliers of ultra pure, well-characterized and documented biopolymers and biomaterials for use in pharmaceutical, biotechnology and biomedical applications.
 
Nova Matrix technologies are used to develop novel drug delivery therapies, with an ongoing dedication to R&D is central to company success. Recent breakthroughs include work being done with alginate foams that offer a wide range of possibilities for overcoming biomedical challenges within areas such as tissue engineering, medical implants and wound management. Nova Matrix has also developed a unique self-gelling/injectable alginate system, bio-compatible and providing controlled biodegradability.

Nova Matrix has developed a unique selfgelling/injectable alginate system that is bio compatible and gives a controlled biodegradability.
© Nova Matrix
 
Early Detection Saves Lives
R&D has translated into success on an international scale for NorDiag ASA. Starting with one product, the DNA-based faecal test GeneFec – used for the early detection of clorectal cancer - NorDiag’s product portfolio expanded with the acquisition of Genpoint AS in 2007. The company offers automated solutions, including instruments, software and kits, for sample preparation for sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, MRSA and other pathogens. In addition, the company’s instrument platform will support future applications in the cancer segment as well.
 
Specifically, NorDiag develops automated sample preparation for isolating DNA/RNA from bacteria, viruses and cells from clinical samples such as urine, swabs, sputum, and stool. Automated systems and tests assist in the detection of colorectal cancer at a precancerous or early stage, and mutation tests that are designed to predict a patient’s response to specific drug therapy. As Mårten Wigstøl, CEO, indicates; “NorDiag’s core competence is automated systems for isolation of DNA/RNA from difficult clinical samples, where the end user value proposition is increased workflow, reduced labor cost, and reproducible results.”
 
Innovative Success
The Oslo Innovation Centre (see separate article) is a place of innovative R&D creativity for over 140 companies, many working within the biotechnology field, including Diatec Monoclonals, an accredited supplier of monoclonal antibodies to some of the largest companies in the diagnostics industry. Production of monoclonal antibodies, custom conjugations to enzymes and fluorochromes and other related activities require the highest level of quality assurance, and the company’s long list of satisfied customers show that they are succeeding.
 
Loyal customers that literally span the breadth of the biotechnology industry and include Affitech, Axis-Shield Diagnostics, Invitrogen Dynal, and a host of others. Ongoing development with an emphasis on the collaborative approach with clients is important to the company, as indicated by Lill Aarseth, Contract Production Manager; “Diatec Monoclonals is dedicated to becoming a leading supplier to the industrial market for diagnostic applications. Key to our success is cooperation with customers to upgrade their production of monoclonal antibodies as well as testing new serum-free media for more documented processes and final products used in diagnostics.”
 
Working with the Best
The list of successful biotechnology companies affiliated with Radium Hospital/ Rikshospitalet (see separate article) is impressive, including Affitech, a privately held Oslo-based biotechnology company that has developed a comprehensive package of innovative technologies for the generation and use of human antibodies. Cooperative R&D activities translate into success for the company, most recently when partner Peregrine Pharmaceuticals announced that its anti-VEGF antibody R84, an antibody identified by Affitech, selectively blocks the interaction of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) to VEGF receptor 2 (VEGFR2); and is as effective as Avastin® (bevacizumab) in inhibiting growth of established tumors in a preclinical breast cancer model.
 
Affitech CEO Martin Welschof, Ph.D commented; “We are delighted with the in vivo results and Peregrine’s decision to evaluate R84 as a candidate for further preclinical studies and potential clinical development.” Established in 1997, the company’s mission is to become a leader in the discovery and development of proprietary antibody-based therapeutic products, addressing significant medical needs. Affitech has received worldwide attention for its proprietary technologies, including its dominant worldwide patent position on phagemid-display of antibodies.
 
NorDiag Bullet, an automated sample prep instrument for difficult clinical samples.
© NorDiag
Looking to the Sea
With nearly 22,000 kilometres of coastline, Norwegians naturally look to the sea to unlock biotech secrets. The Trondheim-based Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) is in the thick of this bioprospecting activity. NTNU is also the site of the newly established Centre for Marine Bioactives and Drug Discovery (MabCent), working to discover the unique yields that the sea has to offer. With approximately 20 marine biotech companies operating in the Trondheim-region, MabCent is at the core of this promising area of discovery. Close collaboration is essential, and MabCent works with marine biotech companies such as Lytix Biopharma, Biotec Pharmacon, Probio Nutraceutical and Pronova Biopharma to unlock the health secrets of the ocean. 
 
The Trondheim-based company Aqua Gen’s focus on renewal, effectiveness and quality improvement has again paid off as it was awarded the Innovation Prize 2007 for the development of a machine for the high quality grading of fertilized Samonid and Trout eggs. The result of a three-year project, this technological innovation improves markedly improves product quality, reduces costs, and increases the welfare factor.
 
Aqua Gen has decades of biological and technological experience focused on the further development of aquaculture in a profitable, sustainable and environmentally friendly way, and the Innovation Prize only confirms that the company is continuing to move in the right direction. Another company enjoying international success is Akvaforsk, specializing in applied genetic research in aquaculture. With more than 30 years of success, the company ranks among the world research leaders in its field. Working side by side with the aquaculture industry is important to Akvaforsk’s successful activities, including research and applied work on genetic improvement on selective breeding covering 11 species worldwide.
 
Tales of the Sponge
Professor Sergey B. Zotchev of the NTNU biotechnology department, together with fellow professor Geir Johnsen, knows that secondary metabolites produced by microbes have wide ranges of individual characteristics and may hold keys that can unlock doors to important drug discoveries. The attention of Zotchev and Johnsen has been drawn to sea sponges, simple sea creatures that are in an ongoing battle against the billons of micro-organisms that are found in every single litre of salt water.
 
This epic struggle of the sea sponge is powered by chemical weapons produced by bacteria living inside the sponges, and it might be possible to utilize such compounds to fight human diseases. Bacteria isolated by Zotchev’s research team from sponge samples are then thoroughly screened to see if secondary metabolites produced by them may be of medical or commercial value, this screening taking place using robotic systems shared by NTNU and SINTEF. The study is ongoing, and the prognosis for finding a healthy ally in the simple sea sponge is positive.
 
Sponge screening is conducted with robotic systems shared by NTNU and SINTEF seeking medical or other commercial applications.
© Tor Nielsen/SINTEF Media

Dedicated to Improving Life
The Norwegian biotechnology industry is thriving for a number of reasons, not in the least as a result of the support and understanding it enjoys in this country. A clear majority of business leaders and the general public understand that Norwegian biotechnology’s is important in changing lives – as well as the excellent effect that it is having on the life quality – not only in their native country, but far beyond Norwegian borders as well. 


FUGE
FUGE (Functional Genomics in Norway) is one of the Research Council of Norway’s large-scale programmes. The programme finances projects that create new understanding in the field of biological processes and those that give a basis to new products and production processes.
For more information on the FUGE programme, visit www.rcn.no/fuge.

 

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