In just a few days, we’ll say goodbye to 2019: a good time to take stock of everything that has happened over the past 12 months in the BioRegion of Catalonia, the Catalan healthcare and life sciences sector.
The first BioEquity held in Barcelona, rounds of funding, corporate operations, research advances and hospital innovations have marked the news this year in the sector. Like every year in this season, here at Biocat we are looking back over some of the most noteworthy headlines concerning companies and research organizations in the BioRegion of Catalonia.
International investors were among the biggest players this year in the BioRegion of Catalonia, as Barcelona hosted BioEquity, the main event for investors devoted to the European biopharmaceutical industry, for the first time this past May. Remember it with the report on BioEquity 2019 and the video of the best moments Biocat prepared for you.
The investment ecosystem has seen lots of news this year. The fund created by Josep Lluís Sanfeliu and Clara Campàs, Sabadell Asabys Health Innovation Investments, kicked off in March with the aim of investing in approximately 15 medical devices, digital health technology and biotechnology companies in the early stages.
In April, Invivo Capital, a venture capital firm led by Lluís Pareras and Albert Ferrer, launched its first fund in the field of biomedicine with €40 million. Not long after, venture capital manager Nina Capital announced its new fund with €18 million to invest in digital health, and we welcomed the pan-European fund Target Global, which holds a share of companies like Mediquo and moved into Barcelona.
If you’d like a summary of all the news, here’s a list of the investment funds that specialize in the sector.
Where did these funds go? Apart from international operations –for example, this year Ysios Capital participated in a €36-million round in US-based Aura Biosciences– companies in the BioRegion were once again involved in significant rounds of funding in recent months. The biggest this year was announced just a few days ago: Anaconda Biomed raised €20 million in a round led by Sabadell Asabys to validate its medical device for stroke in a clinical trial. Asabys Partners, along with Caixa Capital Risc, was also behind the second largest operation of the year: an €8-million round of investment in virtual reality company Psious.
Other noteworthy operations include those by SOM Biotech, for €7 million to fund phase IIa with its compound for Huntington disease; Rob Surgical, with a €5-million round to get CE marking for its Bitrack system, which aims to make today’s surgical robots more efficient; Atrys Health, which just closed a €5-million round to fund growth; and Ability Pharma, which closed a €3.5-million round with Inveready and an Everis fund.
2019 was also full of corporate operations at companies in the BioRegion of Catalonia. Let’s look back at a few. AB-Biotics has stopped trading on the Spanish Alternative Stock Exchange (MAB) after being bought out by Japanese pharmaceutical company Kaneka, which in the end purchased 86% of AB-Biotics.
Ferrer absorbed Spherium Biomed, controlling the company’s pipeline, and the Uriach family once again holds 100% of Palau Pharma, which specializes in prescription drugs. Aerie Pharma acquired the start-up Avizorex Pharma, which specializes in ophthalmology, and Tibidabo Ventures acquired Abac Therapeutics, which specializes in antibiotics. Additionally, Palex has grown even more by purchasing Madrid-based Bemascé and Atrys Health closed the deal to acquire the Medical Institute for Radiation Oncology. In the hospital arena, the HM Group acquired the Hospital de Nens de Barcelona for €10 million.
This year, we’ve read about advances in the pipeline of companies in the BioRegion of Catalonia. The most recent: Grifols completed its study on Alzheimer and is nearing commercialization of the therapy.
Plus, this year Oryzon Genomics presented preliminary findings from its phase II trials on the drug iadademstat to treat relapsed small-cell lung cancer and also promising preliminary results from the phase II clinical trial ALICE on iadademstat to treat acute myeloid leukemia. Minoryx announced that the first patient has been dosed with its lead candidate, leriglitazone (MIN-102), in the phase 2 FRAMES clinical trial in Friedreich’s Ataxia.
You can find a summary of the therapies in clinical trials at start-ups in the BioRegion of Catalonia in this post prepared by Biocat. This is also a good time to remember that Catalonia is among the top 10 in Europe in terms of participation in clinical trials and among the top 20 in the world.
In terms of internationalization and commercial news, this year Minoryx opened a subsidiary in Belgium; HumanITcare reached a deal with Johnson&Johnson and Medical Valley to move into Belgium and Germany; and Devicare closed deals to market its product Lit-Control in the United Kingdom, Malta and Algeria. Pangaea Oncology closed a deal with AstraZeneca to expand its portfolio of oncology services. Speaking of AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical corporation hired Josep Baselga as head of Cancer Research and Development in 2019.
In February, Hospital Clinic took part in the first surgical procedure tele-mentored with 5G technology during the Mobile World Congress. This year, we have also seen other groundbreaking techniques at Catalan hospitals. For example, Hospital Clinic, Sant Joan de Déu and UPF created a groundbreaking surgical navigation system for fetal operations.
Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau kicked off an immunotherapy clinical trial with CAR-T cells to treat B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while Hospital Sant Joan de Déu Barcelona successfully treated the first child with acute lymphoblastic leukemia using publicly funded CAR-T 19 therapy. Liquid biopsy for gene testing in cancer patients is now a reality and Hospital Clinic will be the first to use it in Europe. Vall d’Hebron Hospital cured the first ‘bubble baby’ with a transplant thanks to neonatal screening, and the team also participated in one of the most exciting stories of the year: a woman who survived 6 hours in cardiac arrest due to hypothermia without any neurological effects.
This year also saw the creation of IRISCAT, an alliance of 7 research and innovation institutions with ties to the Catalan Institute of Health: IDIBELL, VHIR, IRB Lleida, IISPV, IDIBGI and IDIAP Jordi Gol i Gurina.
In 2019, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – Centre Nacional de Supercomputació (BSC-CNS) was chosen to house MareNostrum5, one of the supercomputers in the European High-Performance Computing Joint Undertaking promoted by the European Commission.
A total of 40 researchers at Catalan universities and research centers are among the most cited in the world, according to the list of Highly Cited Researchers published each year by the Web of Science Group. And Catalan science once again took the front page of some of the most renowned international science journals. Shall we look back over some of the advances we read about this year?
HIV has been the focus of much-talked-about headlines. In Nature, we read that a consortium coordinated by IrsiCaixa has documented the second case of HIV remission in the world without antiretroviral drugs, using a stem cell transplant. Another international study that included IrsiCaixa confirmed in The Lancet that treatment with retroviral drugs nullifies the risk of HIV contagion through sexual contact.
Let’s turn to oncology. Researchers at Hospital Clinic have discovered cancer-driving mutations in the unexplored area of the genome. Plus, scientists at Hospital Clinic have developed a new non-invasive method to diagnose colon cancer, based on analyzing feces samples.
For its part, VHIO has developed a new drug to boost the immune system against cancer and slow metastasis: the study was published in Nature Communications. Another study involving VHIO and published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed for the first time the efficacy of personalized therapy to treat pancreatic cancer. Plus, VHIO Director Josep Tabernero will be participating in a project recognized by Cancer Research UK. It will have €22.5 million to delve deeper into the relationship between the microbiome and colorectal cancer.
Institut Hospital del Mar d’Investigacions Mèdiques (IMIM) found a new cell mechanism to treat more aggressive tumors, and at IDIBELL researchers have discovered the weight of a new protein in liver cancer: the finding will allow them to select patients and apply a more specific therapy.
Scientists at IRB Barcelona and CRG helped develop an algorithm based on machine learning that could predict which cancer patients have the best chances of benefiting from immunotherapy and IDIBAPS has refined and validated a genomic test that distinguishes the subgroups of HER2-positive breast cancer that could be treated with biological therapies, with little or no chemotherapy.
Good news for leukemia, too. The Josep Carreras Leukemia Foundation discovered the potential of a group of antihistamines to eliminate leukemia stem cells and a study by CIBER-BBN at Hospital de Sant Pau and UAB has opened up a new pathway to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma using nanoparticles that only eliminate tumor cells. Furthermore, Sant Joan de Déu has proven the efficacy of a virus-based therapy to treat retinoblastoma, the most frequent eye tumor in children.
This year we have also read about advances in Alzheimer research. Barcelonaβeta Brain Research Center (BBRC) established new benchmarks for a biomarker associated with Alzheimer, which will increase the number of people who are candidates for prevention. Hospital Sant Pau has validated an automated technique for early diagnosis of Alzheimer using cerebrospinal fluid, and the UAB Neurosciences Institute and the Network Center for Biomedical Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases (Ciberned) identified a blood biomarker to diagnose early stage Alzheimer.
Continuing in neurology, IDIBAPS showed that a new cell therapy can restore the immune system of patients with multiple sclerosis.
Now let’s change therapeutic areas, because 2019 brought heart-warming headlines in cardiology. Germans Trias i Pujol Hospital was able to regenerate a heart after a heart attack with a bioimplant of umbilical-cord cells and Bellvitge University Hospital implanted its first artificial heart, in a highly exceptional complex intervention. And, speaking of hearts, ICFO created flexible, transparent devices that adapt to the skin and can be used to measure everything from heart rate to UV exposure from the sun, precisely and constantly.
Disruptive technology has also come from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) this year, with its hybrid robots that combine synthetic material and living muscle tissue, as well as artificial microkidneys similar to those of a six-month fetus using stem cells. Plus, IBEC and UAB managed to activate molecules inside cell tissue using infrared light, which can be used to focus drug action.
Let’s also look at noteworthy advances in other specializations. IDIBAPS and CIBERDEM discovered a mechanism through which obesity causes insulin resistance, which could trigger type-2 diabetes, and VHIR showed how fecal microbiota can help combat inflammatory intestinal diseases. The UAB helped develop a new process capable of generating resistance to synthetic antibacterial drugs, and researchers at IDIBELL, with international collaboration, described in Nature Communications a new muscle disease caused by a mutation in the myoglobin gene. Another study by ISGlobal warns that prenatal exposure to air pollution is associated with changes in children’s brains associated with behavioral disorders.