17 Feb 2010   |   News

Munich gets €94M to build personalised medicine cluster

Munich, one of Europe’s top biotechnology clusters, is now setting out to lead the world in personalised medicine.

The Technical University of Munich, part of the region's biotech research base

The region around Munich already has a lot of what it takes to compete as a successful biotechnology centre. Besides some 120 biotech companies located in and around the metropolis, with companies such as MorphoSys, MediGene and Micromet numbering among the success stories, the area has also seen a growing pharmaceutical presence over the past decade. 

Novartis moved Sandoz, its generic drugs arm, from Vienna to the Munich suburb of Holzkirchen in 2005, for example. Roche has set up a biotechnology centre in Penzberg, at the edge of the Alps, that produces enzymes, proteins, monoclonal antibodies and hormones.

Completing the picture are research institutions such as the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) and the Technical University of Munich (TUM), which cooperate in the Centre of Integrated Protein Science. Then there are Max Planck Institutes for Biochemistry, Psychiatry and Extraterrestrial Physics, the Helmholtz Research Centre for Environmental Health, and the German Gene Centre at the biotech centre in Martinsried, southwest of Munich.  

Together, Munich’s biotech and pharma companies generate annual revenues of about €10.5 billion, and, along with research institutes, employ around 30,000 people, according to a study carried out in 2008 by the local Chamber of Commerce and BioM, a consultancy and services company that represents Munich’s biotech cluster.

This points to the success of earlier government support, notably the BioRegio programme set up in 1995 to promote development of Munich and other German biotech clusters.

But there is still untapped potential in the region, believes Horst Domdey, managing director of BioM. “We want to address some of the deficits in coordination between academia and industry, building a real campus here,” he says. This is part of a vision for the future of Munich’s biotech sector, developed by BioM over the last year as part of a government competition for Germany’s top technology clusters.

This work bore fruit last month when the cluster was named one of the top five in Germany by the German Ministry for Education and Research. The prize is €94 million in funding. About €40 million will come from the federal government, another €40 million as matching donations from industry partners within the cluster, and the remainder from the Bavarian government.   

Bio-M’s concept centres on transforming the cluster into one focused on personalised medicine, which it loosely defines as the development of diagnostics and medicines tailored to those who can most be helped by them.  “It is clear that the majority of advances in medicine will occur in personalised medicine,” says Domdey.  A number of companies based in the cluster, such as Trion Pharma, a specialist in cancer immunotherapy, and Corimmun, which specialises in cardiovascular diseases, are already focusing on personalised medicine. 

Corimmun is developing COR-1, a drug aimed at a subset of patients suffering from congestive heart failure who develop auto-antibodies that block the activity of beta-1 adrenergic receptors, which are critical to the effective functioning of the heart. These patients generally have a lower chance of survival than other patients with congestive heart failure.

Now, a new diagnostic makes it possible to screen for the antibody.  “Using the pre-screening will be a definite improvement over the current undifferentiated [treatment] for this condition, which [is] unsatisfactory due to the large number of non-responders,” says Martin Ungerer, co-founder of Corimmun.

Thus, the new concept for the cluster doesn’t necessarily entail a change in activities, but a better coordination of available resources, says Domdey.  BioM’s proposal to win the grant funding set out 40 potential collaborations and seven structural projects to bridge the gap between academia and industry.  Just which of these ideas will come to fruition has yet to be decided.  

One of the most important proposals is the development of a centre where companies can carry out Phase I and II clinical trials. Although the LMU and TUM both have clinical trials units, the newly proposed M4 Trial Centre would better coordinate and direct such activities. Currently, many companies in the cluster undertake trials elsewhere. 

The M4 centre will also house a tissue bank, where local companies will have access to blood and tissue samples for research. Again, Domdey notes, such resources exist now, but it is difficult for companies to locate and gain access to them.

The proposed clinical trials centre was key in getting the support of companies such as Corimmun.  “As a small start-up, we are very interested in the trial centre proposal,” says Ungerer.  Since its formation in 2007, Corimmun has received €8 million in funding from a local venture capital firm, MIG, and money from public funds including Bayern Kapital, the High-Tech Gründerfonds and ERP Start fund. 

But it has to use those funds wisely. “Financing clinical trials is very expensive and this would be a cheaper and more efficient way for us to do that,” Ungerer said. The company’s Cor-1 and Revacapt, a treatment for thrombo-embolism, completed Phase I clinical trials in Görlitz, Saxony, and Corimmun is now prospecting for a Phase II trial centre.

One of the leading lights of the Munich cluster, antibody specialist Morphosys, has a slightly different reaction to the winning of the competition. “We are a profitable company and the financial aspect of this is not as important for us,” says spokesman Mario Brkul. But the external funding will help support worthwhile projects while enabling Morphosys to keep its R&D budget low, he says.

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