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April, as the saying goes, brought a downpour of headlines featuring companies and research organizations in the BioRegion: not only in local media (don’t miss the special on Catalan science entrepreneurs that aired a few days ago on the show Tinc una idea on TVE) but also top international science journals like Science, Nature and Cell.

An atomic strainer that multiplies the possibilities of graphene, a new development co-led by the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) and published in Science, will make it possible to use this innovative material to filter extremely small particles. Potential health applications? Anything from making DNA sequencing more efficient (filtering the chains and identifying each base) to restoring function to organs such as the kidneys, using the membrane for dialysis.

Also this month, Science published the largest study on genetic autism spectrum disorder, which identifies new genetic mutations in areas of the DNA that don’t contain genes. The study, which analyzed the genome of 9,274 individuals from 2,600 families, involved several Catalan centers, including the Sant Joan de Déu Research Institute, Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute, University of Barcelona, Pompeu Fabra University and Hospital Universitari Mútua Terrassa.

Another macro-study with Catalan participants also saw the light in April, in this case in oncology: Cell published a monographic issue on the PanCancer Atlas, the largest cancer study in the world, with genomic data from 11,000 patients and nearly 1,000 researchers on board. These included Eduard Porta, a researcher at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), who has published the most up-to-date list so far of the 299 genes involved in developing cancer.

Nature this month features a paper showing that preserving livers at body temperature (37º C) with normothermic perfusion machines slows organ deterioration and makes more organs available for transplant. The study was conducted by researchers at Oxford University, with participation from Hospital Clinic Barcelona.


HIV: two steps forwards, one to the side

Grifols has signed a collaboration deal with IrsiCaixa to donate €1.5 million to the AIDS Research Institute every year for the next five years. In addition to financing rights, Grifols will have preference in exploiting the results and patents resulting from the projects, although IrsiCaixa will retain exclusive ownership.

Also this month, researchers from IrsiCaixa shed light on one of the enigmas that have most absorbed scientists in the fight against HIV: why some people who are exposed to the virus don’t develop the disease and can lead a normal life. The answer was in the virus itself and, more specifically, its external membrane. For the first time, a study points to defects in the protein of the outer membrane of HIV as the reason why 5 patients have been able to control the virus for more than 25 years without needing treatment.

One step forward… and one to the side. A study co-led by the Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) with collaboration from IrsiCaixa has invalidated a molecule that identified cells latently infected with HIV. The study contributed new data on the HIV reservoir, considered the main obstacle to eradicating the virus, and rectifies a paper published in Nature a year ago.


Advances in laboratory pipelines

After taking on a non-family member as CEO for the first time in the company’s history, Staffan Schüberg, Laboratorios Esteve has reason to be optimistic: the Catalan pharmaceutical company expects to submit the results of phase III trials on a line of drugs to treat chronic and acute pain to the FDA in the coming weeks. The drugs would launch to market in 2020 or 2021.

There is also reason for optimism for the Buesas: Oryzon Genomics is advancing on development of Ory-2001. After beginning a phase IIa clinical trial in multiple sclerosis early this year, the biotechnology firm will soon launch another trial in the same phase with Alzheimer. 90 patients will be recruited for the trial, which will be conducted at various Spanish, British and French hospitals.

On their part, biotechnology firm FreeOx, a spin-off of Hospital Clinic, is looking to raise €500,000 in a round of funding for pre-clinical trials on Ox-02, a drug to treat stroke and diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). So far, they have raised €200,000 from two business angels.


More productive muscle

In spring, some diet to look good on the beach while others bulk up to gain productive muscle. Reig Jofre will invest €30 million to triple the productive capacity of their factory that makes lyophilized vials in Sant Joan Despí (Barcelona). The plant’s current production capacity would go from the current 15 million vials to 40 million and up to 50 when it becomes operational by 2020. The company will finance 80% of the investment with bank debt.

For their part, Laboratorios Salvat has launched a new subsidiary, Pharmaloop, with an industrial plant in Alcalá de Henares (Madrid), to cover the production needs from expanding the business into the United States. The Catalan company expects to launch two drugs on the US market this year.

Dara Pharma has begun operations at its new plant, with 2,500 m² in Granollers, after investing €1.3 million. The company specializes in automatic packaging and processing machinery for the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and cosmetics industry.


Operations and news at biotechnology firms

Japanese multinational Kaneka Corporation has acquired 34.05% of AB-Biotics. This operation has led five members of the board at this Catalan company traded on the MAB to step down, leaving the founders and top executives at the company Miquel Àngel Bonachera and Sergi Audivert, Chairman Luis Sánchez-Lafuente, and three other members.

Another company considering going public on the MAB is Vytrus Biotech. The firm has completed a €1-million round of funding with two participation loans from ICF and ENISA, private loans and crowdfunding. This will allow them to continue with their expansion strategy, which includes joining an alternative European stock market in the future.

Pangaea Oncology has signed a collaboration agreement with German diagnostics multinational Qiagen to conduct joint tasks in molecular diagnostics for oncology. The three-year, extendable agreement will allow them to jointly develop multiplex molecular diagnostic technology with liquid biopsies (for multiple genes).

More technology news: Catalan start-up New Born Solutions has created the first non-invasive device to detect meningitis in infants. You set the device against the infant’s fontanel and in three seconds it can detect white blood cell concentration in cerebrospinal fluid. The company expects to begin marketing the product by 2020.

Devicare and nine leading hospitals in urology have kicked off a study to evaluate the combined use of a medical device and a nutraceutical in controlling urinary pH and inhibiting crystallization in order to prevent the calcification of catheters and reduce the number of associated complications.

Furthermore, Kenko Health Accelerator has chosen the five digital health programs it will accelerate in its first edition: Hygeia Technologies, Meditic Health, Brainally, Psycoco and Omadrevida.


Opening doors in North America

A delegation of 8 companies (Adan Medical Innovation, Ahead Therapeutics, Althaia, INTERmedic, Inveready, Laboratorios Rubió, Mind the Byte and Reig Jofre) participated in a business mission to Toronto (Canada) for Toronto Health Innovation Week. The mission was organized by ACCIÓ in collaboration with the Canadian consulate in Barcelona, Biocat and the Canadian ToHealth! Cluster. According to the 2017 Internationalization Survey conducted by Biocat, Canada is the second overseas market of most interest for companies in the BioRegion. It is also a great gateway to the US market.


Another 11 companies and organizations in the 3D-printing and medical devices arena participated in a mission to Boston, organized by ACCIÓ in collaboration with CataloniaBio & HealthTech. These were: Avinent, Diopma, Mastertec, Neos Surgery, Servocad Microtronics, Tractivus, Ventura Medical, IBEC, Fundació Althaia, Fira de Barcelona and Hospital Clinic.


Neurology and oncology research

Can brain shape be used to predict and prevent Alzheimer? Researchers at the Pasqual Maragall Foundation’s Barcelonabeta Brain Research Center (BBRC) have detected morphological alterations in the brains of healthy people who carry the gene associated with the highest risk of developing Alzheimer: APOE-E4. The center highlights that understanding these risk factors would allow them to design clinical trials that are better geared towards eliminating them.

Some 700 early-stage Parkinson patients from various countries will participate in a clinical trial to test a treatment that could act as a vaccine and open up new paths for research to stop this condition. The project, which kicks off this month and will last one year, is led by Jaume Kulisevsky, Hospital de Sant Pau Barcelona researcher and professor of Health Sciences Studies at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC).

In oncology, researchers at the Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO) have validated the first biopsy in cerebrospinal fluid for brain tumors. In a study published in Clinical Cancer Research, they show this type of biopsy improves diagnosis of brain gliomas and allows them to be treated in a more personalized manner, without having to do invasive biopsies and with more precision in terms of tissue.

Additionally, a drug used for metabolic diseases has been proven effective in treating resistant testicle tumors in a study published in Clinical Cancer Research by the Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO) and the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL).

An international study published in PNAS and led by Hospital del Mar Barcelona has discovered that inhibiting a protein, galectin-1 (Gal-1), in mice with pancreatic cancer causes the animals to live longer and the tumors to progress more slowly, behave less aggressively and metastasize less frequently.

Researchers at Hospital del Mar have also published a paper in Leukemia on a study showing the importance of the protein kinase TAK1 in diagnosing a rare disease, Sézary Syndrome, a subtype of cutaneous lymphoma in T cells for which there is no treatment.

Big names in the news this month include Francesc Posas Garriga, a world-renowned researcher in cell biology and professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), who will be taking over from Joan J. Guinovart as director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) on May 1. The selection process, coordinated by the CERCA Institute (Research Centers of Catalonia), received 17 candidates submitted from 6 countries.


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