The missing link – ensuring innovation reaches the patient

By Johan Strömquist

Life Science has a history of dealing with large quantities of data. Across research departments the discussions of data piling up due to lack of manpower and computational power has been going on for quite some time now. There are papers on genetics waiting to be written; omics eating computer storage for breakfast. Therefore, the SEK 3.7 billion funding targeting data driven Life Science from Knut & Alice Wallenberg’s (KAW) foundation is a dream come true for many people working in science

The volumes of available data increase at unprecedented rates, most recently during the global testing of Covid-19. This landscape is wide and obscure. What role should the bioinformatician play? The biologist? The clinician? This initiative from KAW is much welcome as it will facilitate a structure in which the information can be categorized, visualized, interpreted to create new hypotheses. It will also attract international scientists and create new academic disciplines where computer science interfaces with biotechnology. During many years we have seen industry players, especially on the other side of the Atlantic, understand the power in big data and now we will have a national initiative to push these ideas into the future of research. This will result in a plethora of substances that potentially can work as future therapies.

In Sweden, our track record within discovery and innovation is quite impressive. A lot of start-ups have, although small considering their size and capital/equity, their own pipelines with multiple candidates. History shows, however, that most of them never will mature into therapies and reach the patients. What the proposal from KAW does not provide is a way of filtering the discoveries and to ensure the translation from basic science into a commercial product. Few academic researchers are entrepreneurs by breed, and that academic researchers should be encouraged to take innovation to market is a necessity, but it does not offer solutions on how to bridge the gap between research and development. It is often after discovery that we lose the momentum.

Life science is a business with a high demand of funding. In Sweden, clinical development plans are in desperate need of additional financial injections in all our biotech clusters. Currently, the only filter available to determine if the discovery is worth the predicted cost is the market itself. This is many times predicated by spirited individuals in the biotech company itself and their ability to convince the investors. Some people are clearly better at this than others. This ends up with a system rewarding companies based on their ability to raise funds rather than their ability to develop novel therapeutics with clear unmet medical need, while the rest of the players will try to manage to the best of their ability with minimal resources. 

How we, as a society, has handled the pandemic threat is an exquisite example of a market failure that has severely affected people all over the world. Without market incentives to develop vaccines we found ourselves completely unprepared to meet this challenge, in spite the fact that variants of the virus have been around for decades.

Similarly, the daunting future of antibiotic resistance would most likely have been brighter with proper incentive and management. Here, actors such as the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, BARDA, could play an important role. The European Commission’s recent announcement of their initiative to create a new biomedical research agency modeled on BARDA, is also very encouraging.

Maybe we must accept the imperfect nature of the market and still choose to believe it to be the strongest driving force to determine what will be considered sustainable innovation in the future? If so, we as a nation must become more attractive to international venture capital to translate discoveries all the way to the market. The current trend is however to sell out our discoveries internationally and watch successful enterprises grow outside our borders. This creates a handful of millionaires back at home but the broader promises to society, of employment and scientific advancements, are lost to the Swedish taxpayer.

In Sweden we have a strong research tradition and seen from this perspective, the KAW initiative is highly appreciated. But it raises further questions about how we can implement and utilize the breakthroughs and discoveries from our universities, research departments and their spin-outs. Do we really want to settle with selling out our scientific creativity to large international players or should we create a solid support to build our own, sustainable industries? If we want to deliver more and better therapies to patients, more money is needed for development, not just discovery.