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HIGHLIGHTS: Catalan researchers among the elite, advances in cancer and Alzheimer, and vibrant times for innovation in Barcelona

Research and innovation sectors are protagonists in November, along with new rounds of funding and advances in the Catalan vaccine against COVID-19.

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24.11.2020

The final leg in the race to find a Covid-19 vaccine, with over 45 candidates with trials underway, filled the front pages of the main media outlets around the world in November. Pfizer and Moderna announced phase 3 clinical trials showing their respective vaccines are 95% effective. In Catalonia, several hospitals, including Vall d’Hebron, Hospital Clínic, Germans Trias i Pujol and Salud Quirón, will be conducting clinical trials on the Janssen vaccine.

But in addition to coronavirus research, in the BioRegion we’ve also had good news that demonstrates this positive moment in Catalan science and the power of its startups.

Local science among the global elite and advances in cancer and Alzheimer

Sixteen Catalan researchers made the list of scientists most quoted in the world, including oncologists Manuel Esteller, director of the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute, and Enriqueta Felip, principal investigator in the Thoracic Tumors and Head and Neck Cancer Group at the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO). The list is compiled by the Web of Science Group. Plus, a distinguished researcher from the BioRegion, Dr. Valentí Fuster, has been awarded one of the highest recognitions in medicine, the Prince Mahidol Award, for his research in cardiovascular medicine.

We also found out that Clínic-IDIBAPS is the most influential research institution in hepatology in the world, and that there have been advances that could have a substantial impact on cancer research: researchers at the Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) have detected biomarkers that could predict higher risk of developing breast cancer in the future. Plus, the Catalan Ministry of Health has included this hospital in the European University Hospital Alliance (EUHA), a strategic alliance of the most significant university hospitals in Europe.

For its part, Clínic-IDIBAPS has developed a biomarker, published in the journal Lancet Oncology, that predicts the prognosis of patients with HER2+ breast cancer in the early stages. At the same center, scientists have designed an epigenetic clock that can predict the future growth of a tumor and clinical evolution of patients. This way, they will be able to establish treatment strategies in line with the biological risk of the tumor. And, more and more, artificial intelligence (AI) is driving research in medicine. Centers like IDIBELL are already working in this field. A project of this center’s Regenerative Medicine Program has received €800,000 from the la Caixa Foundation to apply AI techniques to study acute myeloid leukemia in the elderly in order to design new therapeutic approaches. Plus, researchers at the Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona (IBMB) have identified the mechanism that the Zika virus uses to cause deformations in fetuses, which opens the door to designing very specific antivirals. 

We’ve also had good news in Alzheimer research at several centers in the BioRegion: researchers at Barcelona Beta Brain Center (BBRC), promoted by the Pasqual Maragall Foundation, have discovered markers to detect Alzheimer in the pre-clinical phase, meaning before there are any symptoms. Plus, a project at Hospital del Mar has shown that bilingualism is a probable protection factor against this disease and could delay onset by at least 4-5 years. And yet another interesting finding: UAB researchers have developed an antibody fragment that lowers Amyloid-β peptides and tau proteins, which cause neuron death in Alzheimer patients. The study is in the pre-clinical phase but could be useful in finding a new pharmacological treatment for this disease.

In addition to the academic research centers, several companies in the BioRegion are also advancing in their drug research: Oryzon Genomics has gotten the green light from the AEMPS to start a phase 2b trial with its drug Vafidemstat for borderline personality disorders. The trials will be conducted at Vall Hebron Hospital and Hospital Sant Pau, as well as other centers in the United States. For its part, AbilityPharma has been granted approval to begin in Spain and the US its clinical trial on a molecule for pancreatic cancer.

Companies: Ups and downs in the BioRegion

Despite the pandemic, Barcelona is experiencing one of its best moments in innovation and investment. This can be seen in the fact that the Madrid-based K Fund has decided to open an office in the city in order to attract more startups. Plus, BHV Partners consultancy firm has taken a step forward and become the first biotechnology venture builder. For their part, founders of the Impulse to Grow consultancy and accelerator, Francisco Badia and Mireia Mir, have launched an investment fund for startups. We’ve also learned that the city will have a new digital economy, training and research space in the old Post Office building (Via Laietana), promoted by the City Council, Zona Franca Consortium and Correos.

The healthcare startup ecosystem in the Catalan capital continues to shine and attract investment:  Impress, which develops invisible orthodontics devices, has raised €5 million: MeThinks has closed a €1.8-million round with Nina Capital (€1.2 million) and Capital Cell (€800,000, the fastest round ever closed on Capital Cell); Cebiotex, a spinoff of Sant Joan de Déu and UPC, has opened a €1.6-million round and kicked off a clinical trial to test its non-invasive therapy for childhood cancer; MiWendo and Gate2Brain, a spinoff of the IRB, have been selected to join the Botín Foundation Mind the Gap program, through which they will receive funding: up to €500,000 each. And Banco Sabadell, through the BStartup Health program, has invested €100,000 in startup Inbrain, which is developing smart graphene devices to treat brain disorders like Parkinson and epilepsy while.

Casting the net a bit wider, in Catalonia, pharmaceutical companies are going strong: Grífols will finish the year with earnings up 15% (€488 million from January through September) fueled by products to diagnose and treat Covid-19. For its part, Almirall, the pharmaceutical company owned by the Gallardo family, has tied up the generational handover by appointing Carlos Gallardo Piqué, son of President Jorge Gallardo, as the group’s vice president.

Although the pandemic has caused Catalan exports to shrink, biotechnology hasn’t been affected by the crisis. Companies have even received capital resources that weren’t previously invested in healthcare, as explained Biocat CEO Jordi Naval in an regional newspaper: “Capital resources clearly believe the healthcare sector will post extraordinary growth due to its impact on society.”

Nevertheless, two multinational pharmaceutical companies based in the BioRegion will have to downsize their staff: Novartis, which had announced an ERE plan to lay off nearly one hundred workers in September, in the end has cut the layoffs by 30% (63 employees in the Respiratory division). Remember, the multinational corporation recently announced it has sold its largest factories in Catalonia, in Barberà del Vallès and El Masnou, to Swiss company Siegfried. For its part, Roche Farma has announced an ERE layoff plan affecting 11% of its staff in Spain. Despite these redundancies, this month we’ve learned that 2020 saw record investment in R&D in the pharmaceutical industry throughout Spain: €1,211 million, with Madrid and Catalonia leading in volume of investment.

Clinical trials begin on Catalan Covid-19 vaccine

Apart from the advances of large multinational pharmaceutical corporations in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine, Catalan biotech firm Ruti Inmune, backed by Archivel Farma, has announced it will begin clinical trials in human subjects with its Covid-19 vaccine. The first trials will be conducted in Argentina.

This month we’ve also learned of other advances in the fight against the pandemic from researchers in the BioRegion: research at Rovira i Virgili University (URV) and Pere Virgili Institute (IISPV) indicates that people being treated with statins are between 22% and 25% less likely to die of Covid-19.  Additionally, a team at Vall d’Hebron has seen that Covid-19 patients who experience headaches show better evolution of the disease. Plus, researchers at Hospital del Mar have observed that some drugs to treat osteoporosis help protect against the disease. And, IrsiCaixa and the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE) will begin working with real SARS-CoV-2 at the Comparative Medicine and Bioimaging Center, in order to study the infection in organoids, which are mini human organs designed in the laboratory.

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