Innovation Report

 
report Precision Medicine

“Momentum for blockchain in healthcare is growing in Basel”

03.12.2018

Marco Cuomo and Daniel Fritz from Novartis got engaged in blockchain two years ago. Today, their aim is set high: With other pharma companies under the Innovative Medicines Initiative, they formed a “Blockchain Enabled Healthcare” program, due to kick off in 2019. The program that they presented at the Blockchain Leadership Summit in Basel – Switzerland’s largest conference in this field - wants no less than to define how blockchain is applied in healthcare.

BaselArea.swiss: You both work for Novartis that is known for pharmaceutical products but not for technology. How come you started to explore the possibilities of Blockchain in the first place?

Marco Cuomo: We got curious about blockchain and wanted to know which problems we can solve with the technology. A handful of interested people had an informal meeting, we formed a group and basically got to the essence of blockchain. That started two years ago.

What did you find?

Marco Cuomo: First of all we found use cases to learn more about it. This is how the supply chain got on our radar because Blockchain is applicable to tracking and tracing. We involved Dan who is our Supply Chain Domain Architect to build a supply chain from the manufacturer to the pharmacy with LEGO robots…

Daniel Fritz: …where we integrated IoT sensors for temperature and humidity as well as a counterfeit product check. We learned for ourselves about the power of blockchain and what is possible.

Marco Cuomo: Our LEGO demo clearly helped to illustrate our point internally as well as externally. We also quickly realized that other pharmaceutical companies must have the same discussions. So we brought other companies to the table.

Why did you not just develop something on your own?

Marco Cuomo: Of course, you can have for example your own cryptocurrency – and then what? To exchange it, you need other parties who use the same cryptocurrency as you do. No, blockchain is not just a new technology that you learn, implement and benefit from. The key feature is to transfer something valuable from one party to the next. Take the supply chain of pharmaceutical products that involves the manufacturer, the distribution center, wholesale, pharmacy, doctor and hospital. Here, blockchain starts to make sense. 

How so?

Marco Cuomo: With blockchain, you do not have to change any supply management system on your side. Instead, you create a kind of common ground. You do not need an intermediate as blockchain is taking that role. We tend to say that it is a team sport because everybody has to play by the same rules.

What is in it for the life sciences industry?

Daniel Fritz: When we show and explain what blockchain is about, we not only cover the basics. Instead, we also look on what we could potentially design as a solution to build upon the regulatory framework. People think, wait, we can even go beyond the law and uncover some business value. I think most people can quickly see that blockchain offers many benefits over the existing technologies that we have in place.

Marco Cuomo: What is in it is efficiency which comes down to saving money, be faster and more secure. Electronic records can be transparently shown in the blockchain. If something fails in the cool chain, everybody can see what happens immediately. Now you wait till a product arrives at the target to then find out that it is flawed and finally start the process for a resend. With blockchain the flawed product never even has to leave the manufacturer.

Daniel Fritz: With other supply chains it is similar. People want to buy organic food – how do you know it is bio? With blockchain, we can guarantee the provenance of a product and remove or reduce counterfeits from the supply chain. This benefits the industry and the patients.

Marco Cuomo: Speaking of patients: It is the holy grail to bring patients in control of their data. Today the data sits in the different silos, with the hospitals, with physicians for example. With the blockchain, we think there is the potential to open that up so that patients can decide who sees my data.

Where do you see other advantages of Blockchain based healthcare?

Marco Cuomo: Our CEO Vas Narasimhan has the vision to create a medicine based on data only, from real world evidence. Blockchain can help to track and trace the data to guarantee its proper provenance. Another opportunity are data marketplaces where you can offer your data to pharmaceutical companies and researchers. Blockchain could help with that. Where normally it would take time to build up the trust for such an exchange of very sensible and valuable data, there is no need for that with blockchain. Novartis hopes that we can use this data to create new medicine in the future. We are also looking into third party risk management.
How can we make sure that our suppliers comply to our labor and safety rules? Why should we have the same audit ten times a year instead of once? Why should these assessments not be owned by the supplier – if we are guaranteed that the supplier is not manipulating them?

You started two years ago as a small group. Where are you now?

Marco Cuomo: We realized that we need to define certain standards to lay the infrastructural ground for Blockchain in healthcare. That is why we submitted the project “Blockchain enabled healthcare” with the Innovative Medicine Initiative where Novartis is already heavily engaged with more than 100 projects. We convinced eight other companies to join: J&J, Bayer, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, UCB, Pfizer, Novo Nordisk, and AbbVie are part of it. The money comes half from the industry, the other half is from the EU, in total 18 million Euro for three years. Applications for the consortium that should include hospitals, labs, patients, SME and universities to work with us closed in October. After that, we will form a project together and start with it late next year.

What is blockchain enabled healthcare about?

Marco Cuomo: The main goal is to define standards to create a governance body that will last longer than the project itself. Like the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium that is defining technical standards of the web, we hope to be the same for Blockchain in healthcare. Take the internet – it also needed someone who defined some standards so everyone could build on that. The same will happen here, hopefully. Imagine if Novartis was to implement their own blockchain and has to convince thousands of suppliers to use it. If the next company does the same, end-to-end product tracking becomes impossible for the parties involved. Why should doctors use our system or the other one? Also, the patient journey does not only include pills from Novartis. You need a standard.

How easy was it to convince the other companies to come on board?

Daniel Fritz: Some of the companies we asked jumped on board immediately. Others needed to understand our vision in more detail. So we had a lot of talks which were very positive as we were able to establish a high level of trust and collaboration within the consortium, which is really what blockchain is about.

In which ways did it help to be in Basel to start this journey?

Marco Cuomo: It started here and Novartis is leading it. All the companies and the academia we talked to form the initial approach to the program are close. It also helps to have a CEO who strongly supports digital initiatives and a CDO who sees the potential.

Daniel Fritz: Momentum for blockchain in healthcare is growing in Basel, in Novartis, and globally. It will benefit patients and the industry, but we have a lot of hard work in the consortium and with public partners to get there.

About

Marco Cuomo is Manager of Applied Technology Innovation and a Senior Digital Solutions Architect with Novartis. He started with Novartis in 2005 as a Business Informatics Engineer and gained a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration.

Daniel Fritz works as the Supply Chain Domain Architect at Novartis. Before that he was an engineer officer with the US Army and a Materials Manager. He studied at the US Military Academy at West Point and gained a Master of Business Administration from Duke University.

report Life Sciences

Novartis optimistic about the future

05.11.2018

report Life Sciences

Chinese Pharma Goes Global

27.09.2018

report Invest in Basel region

Basel pharma companies invest most in R&D

15.07.2018

The 24 Interpharma companies spent a total of 96 billion Swiss francs on research and development worldwide in 2017. Of this, 7 billion francs were invested in Switzerland. When compared with the sales they generated in Switzerland, the companies’ Swiss research investment was more than twice as high. According to the association, this is a testament to the great significance of Switzerland as a research location and the innovation taking place at these companies.

Investment in research and development has been especially high among companies that have their headquarters in Switzerland, such as Roche and Novartis.

Interpharma highlights the key role the pharma industry in the Swiss export sector plays. The association also notes that more than 86 patents were registered per million employees in pharmaceutical research in Switzerland between 2012 and 2016. This is more than double the number of Denmark and five times as many as in Germany.

Among the Interpharma members are companies such as Novartis, Roche, Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Sanofi, Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer or GlaxoSmithKline.

Investments in the future

How committed the life science companies are to Basel is also reflected with regard to their planned investments which is as high as 6 billion Swiss francs. Roche, for instance, is in the process of renewing its Basel and Kaiseraugst sites. By 2023, the company with the long heritage in Basel will have invested 3 billion Swiss francs into their infrastructure. Some buildings are being modernized, while others are rebuilt completely. Bau 1, with 178 meters the tallest building in Switzerland, was opened in 2015 and cost 550 million Swiss Francs.

The remarkable tower that was designed by world-class architects Herzog & de Meuron from Basel provides workspace for approximately 2000 employees. Meanwhile, the big brother is under construction: Bau 2 will be 205 meters high and provide space for approximately 1700 employees. At the Kaiseraugst site, the group constructs an IT hub to gather all IT functions under one roof whilst taking the strategic role of technology and the growing numbers of IT employees into account. Roche will invest more than half a billion Swiss francs in Kaiseraugst.

More investments are under way in Basel:

The Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute invests 90 millions Swiss francs in their new building in Allschwil, providing 900 workspaces. The new building is due in late 2020.

The Biozentrum of the University of Basel constructs a site for students and researchers, spending 328 million Swiss francs. Further, the University builds a Life Sciences Campus, concentrating different disciplines in one location to foster collaboration. The Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering of the ETH is also part of the project.
The University Hospital of Basel will realize a new building by 2032, costing approximately 1,2 billion Swiss francs. In 2017, the hospital opened new state-of-the-art surgery facilities.

report Invest in Basel region

At a glance: The Life Sciences Cluster Basel Region

17.09.2018

report Invest in Basel region

Novartis creates up to 450 new jobs

27.08.2018

report BaselArea.swiss

Investing in strengths – Swiss leadership in life sciences

15.05.2017

How can Switzerland and the Basel region maintain their international leadership role in life sciences? As part of the Biotech and Digitization Day, Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann visited the Basel region to discuss current trends and challenges with a high-ranking delegation from politics, business, research and start-ups.

The importance of life sciences for the Swiss economy is enormous. Last year, the sector was responsible for 45% of total Swiss exports. Similarly, the majority of new relocations are active in the healthcare sector. Switzerland is said to a leading life sciences location in the world with the Basel region as its engine.

It is against this backdrop that Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, was invited by BaselArea.swiss and digitalswitzerland to visit the Basel region as part of the Biotech and Digitization Day to discuss current trends and challenges in life sciences with a high-ranking delegation from politics, business and research.

The event was held at Actelion Pharmaceuticals and the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area in Allschwil in the canton of Basel-Landschaft. Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann emphasised the significance of the region and life sciences industry: “The two Basels have a high density of innovation and successful companies, research institutes and universities. This fills me with pride and confidence. Pharmaceuticals and chemistry are rightly regarded as the drivers of innovation.” But Switzerland cannot rest on its laurels if it is to remain successful in the future; business and politics, science and society must all use the digital transformation as an opportunity, he insisted.

The event was organised by BaselArea.swiss, which promotes innovation and business development in the northwest Switzerland cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft and Jura, and digitalswitzerland, the joint initiative of business, the public sector and science, whose aim is to establish Switzerland as a leading digital innovation location in the world.

Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann is currently visiting Switzerland’s leading regions to get an impression of the effects of digitalisation on different business sectors and to talk about promising future concepts.

Supporting biotech start-ups

Life sciences are regarded as a cutting-edge sector with considerable growth potential. But competition among the different locations is becoming more aggressive as other regions in the world are investing heavily to promote their location and attract large companies. A central question of today’s event was: How can Switzerland and the Basel region maintain its leadership role in the face of international competition?

Given its major economic importance in life sciences and when measured against other leading locations worldwide, Switzerland has comparatively few start-ups in this industrial sector. With the launch of BaseLaunch, the new accelerator for healthcare start-ups, BaselArea.swiss and the Kickstart Accelerator from digitalswitzerland have taken a first step to changing this. However, in addition to the lack of seed capital in the early phase of a company’s development, there is also a lack of access to the large capital that an established start-up requires in order to expand. Said Domenico Scala, president of BaselArea.swiss and a member of the steering committee of digitalswitzerland: “We have to invest in our strengths. This is why we need initiatives like Swiss Future Fund, which aims to enable institutional investors to finance innovative start-ups.”

The importance of an innovative start-up scene for Switzerland as a centre of life sciences was also a topic for the roundtable discussion that Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann held with Severin Schwan, CEO of the Roche Group, Jean-Paul Clozel, CEO of Actelion Pharmaceuticals, Andrea Schenker-Wicki, rector of the University of Basel, and others.

Digitalisation as a driver of innovation

The second topic at the Biotech and Digitization Day was digitalisation in life sciences. According to Thomas Weber, a member of the government of the canton of Basel-Landschaft, this is an important driver of innovation for the entire industry and is crucial to strengthening Switzerland as a centre of research.

In his speech, Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann focused on three aspects: first, the creation of a new and courageous pioneer culture in which entrepreneurship is encouraged and rewarded for those who dare to try something different. Second, more momentum for start-ups by realising an initiative for a privately financed start-up fund. And third, shaping the role of the state as a facilitator that opens up spaces rather than putting up hurdles or bans.

In the public discussion round, in which representatives from research and industry as well as entrepreneurs participated, it became clear that digitalisation is changing life sciences. Everyone agreed that Switzerland has the best conditions to play a leading role in this transformation process. The basis for this are its powerful and globally actively pharmaceutical companies, its world-renowned universities and an innovation-friendly ecosystem with digitally driven start-ups from the healthcare and life sciences fields. 

digitalswitzerland wants to promote this, too. According to Nicolas Bürer, CEO of digitalswitzerland, healthcare and life sciences are key industries to making Switzerland the leading digital innovation location.

A further contribution can be made by the DayOne, the innovation hub for precision medicine. Launched by BaselArea.swiss in close cooperation with the canton of Basel-Stadt, it brings together on a regular basis a growing community of more than 500 experts and innovators in an effort to share ideas and advance projects.

report Invest in Basel region

Two of the world’s most valuable companies come from Basel

04.07.2018

report

Chinese Pharma Goes Global

24.06.2018

report BaselArea.swiss

BaseLaunch can take full advantage of the potential of Basel's life sciences ecosystem

15.03.2017

The new accelerator for healthcare ventures, BaseLaunch, wants to link the best start-ups to the Basel region – and in doing so, provide impulses for major players. The project will consistently focus on quality and the concentrated know-how in the region, says Managing Director Alethia de Léon.

Financial support through BaseLaunch can be as high as CHF 10’000 per project. Startups accepted for the second phase will receive grants up to CHF 250’000. Other regions have tens of millions at their disposal. Are you even competitive?

Highly generous programmes in the EU and around the world have shown that it is not enough to distribute a lot of money with open hands. Rather, we have to make sure that the investments go to the most promising projects, namely those with a suitable team likely to effect a successful development from an idea to the market. In short: quality – and not quantity – has topmost priority for BaseLaunch.

What makes BaseLaunch unique?

BaseLaunch focuses on the entrepreneurs. Startups accepted for the programme will receive non-repayable funding, instead of equity financing that has to be repaid. Additionally, Basel is a life sciences ecosystem with one of the highest densities of biopharmaceutical enterprises globally and has an incredible pool of talents and specialists. Our healthcare partners, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and Novartis Venture Fund offer direct access to valuable industry knowledge and experience relevant to develop and boost transformative healthcare solutions. Together, this allows us to give market-relevant advice suited to the needs of every single start-up company.

What types of projects is BaseLaunch especially suitable for?

BaseLaunch is open to all projects in the healthcare field. Geographically, our focus is on Switzerland and Europe. Our laboratories in Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area specialise on therapeutics, but innovative concepts in the diagnostic and medtech fields are also welcome to participate in the accelerator.

Operationally, the accelerator is managed by BaselArea.swiss but operates under a different name. Why such a setup?

BaseLaunch seeks to find the most innovative and promising healthcare start-ups, support them and embed them into the local healthcare ecosystem. This makes BaseLaunch an important part of the core activity of BaselArea.swiss. Due to the different financing and decision-making structures and in line with a focussed market presence and a particular target groups, it made sense to launch the project under a different name.

Is it then the role of the state to invest in start-ups?

No public funds are invested in the projects. The cantons are financing the operational running of BaseLaunch. But what goes directly into the start-ups comes from the private sector. With BaseLaunch, BaselArea.swiss is thus providing the right framework conditions as a neutral partner of industry fostering the emergence of new companies with suitable programmes. And don’t forget that other places are very much on the offensive with public resources. It’s important not to fall behind. We have to remain in the fiercely competitive bid to be an attractive location – without, however, distorting our liberal economic order.

Why do we need more start-ups?

Start-ups are needed first and foremost to create added value from knowledge. If we invest billions into academic research, this also needs corresponding structures to make innovations out of inventions. It’s been shown that start-ups are taking on a more and more decisive role in this respect. In addition, start-ups have the potential to grow rapidly when successful and create a great number of high-quality jobs. Actelion, which began as a start-up, is the best example of this. While BaseLaunch succeeds in working with the best start-up projects, this also generates impulses for established companies and the ecosystem as a whole. BaseLaunch thus contributes toward raising the region’s attractiveness as Europe’s leading life sciences hub.

Is the Basel region even interesting for start-ups? Isn’t the cost of living likely to frighten away entrepreneurs?

Silicon Valley, London or Boston is not more affordable. The unique advantage of Basel’s life sciences ecosystem – its concentration of talent, pharmaceutical decision-makers and capital, which are unrivalled in Europe – ultimately tip the balance in our favour in the eyes of company founders. We have seen that the Basel region scores well in these critical areas – which are “must haves” especially for young companies – that, all things considered, the overall package is more than enough. This can be seen in the steady increase in companies being founded from outside the region in recent years.

For more information about the project, please visit www.baselaunch.ch

 

About Alethia de Léon

Born in Mexico, Alethia de Léon studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School. After working in healthcare investment and product development, she was Global Head of Search and Evaluation, Business Development and Licensing for the Neuroscience Business at Novartis until 2015. In addition to managing BaseLaunch, Alethia de Léon is CEO and founder of the start-up Senes Science GmbH.

 

report Life Sciences

Novartis app facilitates clinical trials

26.04.2018

report Innovation

Basel researchers cultivate cartilage from stem cells

17.04.2018

report ICT

Dr App – Digital transformation in the life sciences

30.11.2016

The future belongs to data-driven forms of therapy. The Basel region is taking up this challenge and investing in so-called precision medicine.
An article by Fabian Streiff* and Thomas Brenzikofer, which first appeared on Friday, 14 October 2016, in the NZZ supplement on the Swiss Innovation Forum.

So now the life sciences as well: Google, Apple and other technology giants have discovered the healthcare market and are bringing not only their IT expertise to the sector, but also many billions of dollars in venture capital. Completely new, data-driven, personalized forms of therapy – in short: precision medicine – promise to turn the healthcare sector on its head. And where there is change, there is a lot to be gained. At least from the investor’s point of view.

From the Big Pharma perspective, things look rather different. There is quite a lot at stake for this industry. According to Frank Kumli from Ernst & Young, the entry hurdles have been relatively high until now: “We operate in a highly regulated market, where it takes longer for innovations to be accepted and become established.” But Kumli, too, is convinced that the direction of travel has been set and digitalization is forging ahead. But he sees more opportunities than risks: Switzerland - and Basel in particular - is outstandingly well-positioned to play a leading role here. With the University of Basel, the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering ETH, the University of Applied Sciences Northwest Switzerland, the FMI and the University Hospital Basel, the region offers enormous strength in research. It also covers the entire value chain, from basic research, applied research and development, production, marketing and distribution to regulatory affairs and corresponding IT expertise. The most important drivers of digital transformation towards precision medicine include digital tools that allow real-time monitoring of patients – so-called feedback loops. The combination of such data with information from clinical trials and genetic analysis is the key to new biomedical insights and hence to innovations.

Standardized nationwide data organization
In rather the same way that the invention of the microscope in the 16th century paved the way to modern medicine, so data and algorithms today provide the basis for offering the potential for much more precise and cheaper medical solutions and treatments for patients in the future. At present, however, the crux of the problem is that the data are scattered over various locations in different formats and mostly in closed systems. This is where the project led by Professor Torsten Schwede at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) comes into play.

As part of the national initiative entitled Swiss Personalized Health Network, a standardized nationwide data organization is to be set up between university hospitals and universities under centralized management at the Stücki Science Park Basel. Canton Basel-Stadt has already approved start-up funding for the project. The standardization of data structures, semantics and formats for data sharing is likely to substantially enhance the quality and attractiveness of clinical research in Switzerland – both at universities and in industry. There is no lack of interest in conducting research and developing new business ideas on the basis of such clinical data. This was apparent on the occasion of Day One, a workshop event supported by BaselArea.swiss for the promotion of innovation and economic development and organized by the Precision Medicine Group Basel Area during Basel Life Sciences Week.

More than 100 experts attended the event to address future business models. Altogether 14 project and business ideas were considered in greater depth. These ranged from the automation of imaging-based diagnosis through the development of sensors in wearables to smartphone apps for better involvement of patients in the treatment process.

Big Pharma is also engaged
“The diversity of project ideas was astonishing and shows that Switzerland can be a fertile breeding ground for the next innovation step in biomedicine,” Michael Rebhan from Novartis and founding member of the Precision Medicine Group Basel Area says with complete conviction. The precision medicine initiative now aims to build on this: “Despite the innovative strength that we see in the various disciplines, precision medicine overall is making only slow progress. The advances that have been made are still insufficient on the whole, which is why we need to work more closely together and integrate our efforts. A platform is therefore required where experts from different disciplines can get together,” says Peter Groenen from Actelion, likewise a member of Precision Medicine Group Basel.

There is also great interest among industry representatives in an Open Innovation Hub with a Precision Medicine Lab as an integral component. The idea is that it will enable the projects of stakeholders to be driven forward in an open and collaborative environment. In addition, the hub should attract talents and project ideas from outside the Basel region. The novel innovation ecosystem around precision medicine is still in its infancy. In a pilot phase, the functions and dimensions of the precision medicine hub will be specified more precisely based on initial concrete cases, so that the right partners can then be identified for establishing the entire hub.

Leading the digital transformation
The most promising projects will finally be admitted to an accelerator programme, where they will be further expedited and can mature into a company within the existing innovation infrastructures, such as the Basel Incubator, Technologiepark Basel or Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area.

Conclusion: the Basel region creates the conditions for playing a leading role in helping to shape digital transformation in the life sciences sector and hence further expanding this important industrial sector for Switzerland and preserving the attractiveness of the region for new companies seeking a location to set up business.

* Dr Fabian Streiff is Head of Economic Development with Canton Basel-Stadt

report Life Sciences

Novartis to acquire gene therapy specialist

10.04.2018

report Precision Medicine

Novartis steps up digital therapy development

01.03.2018

report Medtech

“This is the century of biology and biology for medicine”

05.10.2016

Andreas Manz is considered one of the pioneers in the field of microfluidics and at present is a researcher at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Saarbrücken (KIST Europe) and professor at Saarland University.

In our interview, the successful scientist explains the motivation that drives him to research and what it means to receive a lifetime achievement award from the European Patent Office.

You are known as a pioneer of microfluidics. How did you come to start researching in a completely new field?
Andreas Manz*:
Even as a child I was really fascinated by small things. They were mostly stones, insects or bugs that I took home with me. This interest in small things stayed with me, and eventually I went on to study chemistry at the ETH Zurich. In my PhD thesis I examined the natural law of molecular diffusion. If you entrap two molecules in a very small volume – rather like two birds in a cage – they cannot get away and become faster. I was instantly fascinated by this acceleration. My professor Willy Simon, an expert in chemical sensors and chromatography, talked in his lectures about processes can also get very fast when they are reduced in size. And that instantly fascinated me.

But so far you have been talking about pure chemistry – when did you get the idea of using chips?
I started working for a company in Japan in 1987. That’s where I first came into contact with chip technology. I was part of the research department myself, but I kept seeing colleagues disappearing into cleanrooms and coming back with tiny chips. That inspired me and got me wondering whether you could not also pack chemistry onto these chips instead of electronics. After all, even the inner workings of the tiniest insect involves the transportation of fluid, so it should also work on a small chip. At Hitachi I was eventually able to get my first microfluidic chip produced for test purposes.

From Japan your journey then took you to Ciba-Geigy in Basel. What prompted that move?
Michael Widmer was then Head of Analytical Chemistry Research at Ciba-Geigy in Basel. This brilliant fascinated me from the word go: he had the vision that you should also integrate crazy things in research and not only look for short-term financial success. Industry should allow itself to invest in quality and also develop or promote new methods in the research activities of a company if it could be of benefit to the company. So Professor Widmer brought me to Basel, where it was my mission to pack “the whole of chemistry”, as he put it, on a single chip. While Michael Widmer did not yet know what to expect, he had a feeling that it could be worthwhile.

How did you go about it?
At that time, chips were very new and not entirely appropriate for the world of pharmaceuticals. Ciba-Geigy, too, was not enthusiastic about the new application initially. There was no great interest in making changes to existing technologies and processes that worked. But in my research I was able to try out what might be possible. I found, for example, that electrophoresis – a method for separating molecules – could work. It would be relatively easy to miniaturize this method and test it to see whether it also speeds up the process. And the results were very good: We were able to show that a tenfold miniaturization of electrophoresis makes the process 100 times faster without compromising the quality of the information. This realization was really useful for clinical diagnosis and the search for effective molecules in drug discovery. At the same time, we were also testing different types of chips that we sourced from a wide variety of producers.

When did the time come to go public with the new technology?
At the ILMAC in Basel in 1996, Michael Widmer organized a conference in the field of microfluidics – which proved to be a bombshell. We had planned for this effect to a large extent, because in the run-up to the meeting we had already invited selective researchers and shown them our work. This hyped things up a little, and at the conference we were eventually able to mobilize researchers from Canada, the USA, the Netherlands, Japan and other countries to present the new technology of microfluidics.

Although the attention was there, Ciba-Geigy nevertheless later brought research in this field to an end. Why was that?
Basically we lacked lobby groups within the company and a concrete link to a product. Our research was somewhat too technical and far ahead of its time, and within Ciba-Geigy they were simply not yet able to assess the potential of the technology. Added to which, we had not given any concrete consideration to applications; we were more interested in the technology and experiments than in its commercial use. When a large picture of me then appeared in a magazine with a report on microfluidics, and the journal pointed out on its own initiative that Ciba-Geigy was not adequately implementing the technology, the research was stopped. I was quite fortunate under the circumstances: Since the company had terminated the project, I found that – despite a non-compete clause – I was able to follow the call to Imperial College in London within a short time, where I could continue research in microfluidics with students. In addition, I joined a company in Silicon Valley as consultant.

Is it not typical that a large company fails to transform a pearl in its portfolio into a new era?
You should not see it so negatively, because microfluidics was a pearl not for the pharmaceutical industry, but rather for environmental analysis, research or clinical diagnosis. The pharmaceutical industry dances to a different tune. It prefers to buy in the finished microscope at a higher price than get it constructed itself for relatively little money. Michael Widmer and his team in research and analytical chemistry at Ciba-Geigy developed many things in a wide variety of fields – with which were far ahead of their time.

Microfluidics is an established field today. What are the driving forces now?
To my mind there are two driving forces: firstly the application and the users and secondly academic curiosity as regards the technology and also training. The first of these is the stronger driving force: there are cases in which the application of a microfluidic solution is not absolutely necessary to do justice to the application. Take “point of care”, for example. The objective is to analyse a patient directly at the place where he or she is treated – for example, in intensive care. The patient is evaluated, blood and respiratory values are analysed, and it is possible to assess immediately whether the measures taken are having an effect in the patient. Another possibility is to integrate the widest variety of analytical options in smartphones – similar to the Tricoder in Star Trek. I’m pretty sure that something like that is feasible. But at the moment the hottest topic in the commercial sector is clinical diagnostics. This came as a surprise to me, because you cannot reuse a chip that has come into contact with a patient’s blood. You need a lot of consumable material, which is also reflected in the price. But perhaps new funding models can be found in which, for example, the device is provided, but the consumable material – i.e. the chips – are paid for separately, rather like a razor and razor blades.

Where do you see opportunities for Switzerland in this field?
The education of qualified people is important. Here the ETH and EPFL play a particularly important role for Switzerland, because they attract students from all over the world. They hopefully leave Switzerland with good memories and could possibly campaign later for the commercialization of technologies. That could be a huge opportunity. Of course there are also generous people within Switzerland, but there is a tendency here to economize and think twice before deciding whether and, if so, where to invest one’s money. It’s a question of mentality and not necessarily typically Swiss. It’s also not a bad thing, because in precision mechanics, for example, reliability and precision are essential – and this technology fits with our mentality. “Quick and dirty” works better in Silicon Valley and Korea – but the products then often fail to ensure up to the quality standards here. As a high-price island, Switzerland offers little, opportunity for cheap production, which is why the focus is on education and existing technologies. This too is very important and has a good future.

Will microfluidics one day become as big as microelectronics is today?
I don’t think so, because it is limited to chemical and cytobiological applications and is also not as flexible as microelectronics. At most, I see the new technology being used on existing equipment or processes.

But most of the systems on the market today are very much closed, so it is difficult to integrate new technologies here.
Yes, but that’s only partly true, because existing devices also have to be upgraded. Take a mass spectrometer, for example. You can buy one of these, and there are certainly many companies that sell this equipment. But if ten companies offer something equivalent, you have to stand out from the mass. So if a “Lab on a Chip” is added on, then this mass spectrometer enjoys a clear advantage. While the company makes money from the sale of the equipment, it is the microfluidic chip that gives the incentive to buy – and there is certainly a lot of money to be made from this. You see, we are living in the century of biology and medicine and are only just beginning to takes cells from the body to regenerate them and then perhaps re-implanting them as a complete organ. When you see what has been achieved in physics and electrical engineering in the last century, and translate that into biology and medicine, then we have an awful lot ahead of us. Technology is needed to underpin these radical changes. SMEs in particular are very good at selling their products to research; that’s a niche. In most cases, small companies use old technology and modify it – such as a chip in a syringe that then analyses directly what the constituents of a fluid are when it is drawn up into the syringe. This opens up many opportunities.

You have also co-founded companies, but describe yourself mainly as a researcher. How do the two go together?
Actually I was never an entrepreneur, but always just a scientific advisor. I preferred to experience the academic world instead of becoming fully engaged in a company. Deep down, I’m an adventurer who comes to a company with wild ideas. Money is also never a priority for me; I always wanted to improve the quality of life or give something to humanity. It is curiosity that drives me. When I see a bug that flies, that drives me to find out how it works. There are ingenious sensors in the tiniest of creatures, and as long as we cannot replicate these as engineers, we still have work to do. This inspires me much more than quarterly sales revenue and profits.

But money is also an important driver for research.
Yes, it’s all about money, right down to university research. Research groups are commissioned by companies because of the profit they hope to gain. Even publicly funded research always has to show evidence of a commercial application. Curiosity or the goal of achieving something of ethical value is hardly a topic in the engineering sciences. Of course it’s important that our students can also enter industry; after all, most of the tax revenue comes from industry. But if I personally had the freedom to choose, then I would prefer to pursue work as a form of play – which can by all means result in something to be taken seriously. Take electrophoresis on a chip: That was also quite an absurd idea to begin with, and it led to something really exciting! A lot of my work therefore has a playful, non-serious aspect to it – for me that is exactly right. You see, I can produce a chip which deep inside it is as hot as the surface of the sun, but which you can nevertheless hold in your hand. It’s crazy, but it works, because only the electrons have a temperature of 20,000 Kelvin. The glass outside does not heat up very much as a result, and the chip does not melt. And suddenly you have plasma emission spectroscopy on a chip as the result of a crazy idea. I feel research calls for a certain sense of wit, and I often like to say that, with microfluidics research, we take big problems and make them so small that you can “no longer see them”.

You have covered so many areas of microfluidics yourself – are other researchers still able to surprise you with their work?
Admittedly, I am rather spoiled today by all the microfluidic examples that I have already seen. Sometimes I feel bored when I go to a microfluidics conference and see what “new” things have emerged – I somehow get the feeling I’ve seen it all before. The pioneering days, when there was also a degree of uncertainty at play, are probably definitely over. Today you can liken microfluidics to a workshop where you get the tools you need at any given time. This means of course that the know-how has also become more widespread: Initially I possessed perhaps a third of all knowledge about microfluidics worldwide; today it is much less. So I now enjoy casting my research net further afield.

You received a lifetime achievement award from the European Patent Office last year. What does this award mean to you?
You cannot plan for an award – at most you can perhaps hope for one. When you then get it, it brings a great sense of joy. The award process itself was also exciting: as with the Oscars, there were three nominees: a Dutchman who developed the coding standard for CD, DVD and Blu-ray discs, which is still used to this day, and a researcher from Latvia who is one of the most successful scientists and inventors in medical biochemistry with more than 900 patents and patent applications. Faced with this competition, I reckoned I did not have much chance of the award and was absolutely astonished when I was chosen. The jury explained that its decision was down to the snowball effect: citations almost always refer to my patents at the time with Ciba-Geigy.

Interview: Fabian Käser and Nadine Nikulski, BaselArea.swiss

*Andreas Manz is a researcher at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Saarbrücken (KIST Europe) and professor at the Saarland University. He is regarded today as one of the pioneers in microchip technology for chemical applications.

After positions in the research labs of Hitachi in Japan and at Ciba-Geigy in Basel, he took up a professorship at Imperial College in London, where he headed the Zeneca-SmithKline Beecham Centre for Analytical Chemistry. In the meantime he was also a scientific advisor for three companies in the field of chip laboratory technology, one of which he founded himself. In 2003, Manz moved to Germany and headed the Leibniz Institute of Analytical Sciences (ISAS) in Dortmund until 2008.

Around 40 patents can essentially be attributed to him, and he has published more than 250 scientific publications, which have been cited more than 20,000 times to date.

report Life Sciences

Novartis is World’s Most Innovative Biotech Company

21.02.2018

report Life Sciences

Novartis subsidiary certified as Top Employer

05.02.2018

report Life Sciences

Therapeutic gene editing is taking off – and Basel is right in the middle

28.01.2015

Very rarely can a scientist claim to have had a fundamental and game-changing impact in his field and beyond. But Jennifer Doudna from University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who was working at the University of Umeå in Sweden at the time, can claim just that. In mid-2012, when they published their discovery of an RNA-programmable tool (termed CRISPR for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) which allowed DNA to be cleaved in a very targeted and extremely efficient manner, they created a stir, because this tool could potentially also be used for RNA-programmable genome editing. And only months later, this is exactly what George Church from Harvard and Feng Zhang from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard showed in two independent publications: CRISPR could be used to edit the genome of potentially any organism, from yeast to man, whether to introduce new mutations, to correct disease-causing mutations or to insert or remove whole sections of DNA in the genome, and all of this in no time at all. After this the biomedical community was jumping with excitement, and scientists were describing CRISPR as the “holy grail” of genetic engineering and a «jaw-dropping» breakthrough in the fight against genetic disease.

A new era in gene editing
It was not that genomes had not been editable until then. But for higher eukaryotes, such as mice, monkeys, dogs or also human cells, it was a slow, painstaking and expensive process that could potentially take months if not years. But with CRISPR it was possible for the first time to edit the genome very precisely and at unprecedented speed and very little cost. The research community quickly embraced CRISPR as a research tool to engineer custom transgenic lab animals in a matter of weeks—saving about a year's worth of work. This not only enables new model organisms to be established in a very short time for many hitherto hard to treat diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, autism, certain forms of cancer, but also allows cell lines to be edited for drug screening or new approaches to be explored for treating HIV. It might also be possible to for example correct the chromosomal abnormality associated with Down syndrome early in a pregnancy, to reintroduce susceptibility to herbicides in resistant weeds, to bring back extinct animal species and very much more.

On the road to commercialization
From the outset, of course, it was clear that CRISPR would also attract a lot of interest from the biotech world, which is also where Basel enters into the story. So far, three therapeutic biotech companies have been formed around CRISPR, two of them having links to Basel. The first of these was Editas Medicine from Boston, which was launched in late 2013 with $43 million in venture capital from Flagship Ventures, Thirdrock Ventures, Polaris Partners and the Partners Innovation Fund. A few months later, the Basel office of Versant Ventures announced a Series A investment of $25 million to start up CRISPR Therapeutics with headquarters in Basel. And in late 2014, Atlas Ventures and Novartis announced the formation of Intellia Therapeutics (although it had already existed in stealth mode for almost two years) with a Series A investment round of $15 million.

And just recently Novartis also concluded the first biotech-pharma licensing deal in this area with Intelllia, for exclusive rights for ex vivo engineering of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells (another hot topic in biotech/pharma research these days) and the right to develop a number of targets for ex vivo editing of hematopoietic stem cells. Ex vivo applications, in which cells are extracted from patients and manipulated outside the patient’s body and then re-infused, will very likely be among the first treatments to be developed for Editas Medicine and CRISPR Therapeutics, as this can be addressed with the technology as it stands today. The companies expect clinical trials to begin in as little as three years.

Challenges ahead
One of the big challenges, however, will be to make CRISPR a technology to treat genetic diseases of any kind with a one-time fix that can «edit» out genetic abnormalities and cure disease at the genetic level, potentially in a single treatment, in vivo. But for this to happen, ways have to be figured out for safely and effectively delivering a gene-editing drug into the body, which is still a very big hill to climb.

And there is another issue: The patent situation is in a state of some confusion. The first patent issued went to the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and was licensed by Editas Medicine. However, after that patent was granted, Jenifer Doudna, originally one of the co-founders of Editas Medicine, broke off her relationship with the company, and licensed her intellectual property - in the form of her own pending patent - to Intellia Therapeutics. And to confuse the issue further, Emmanuelle Charpentier, who claims that «the fundamental discovery comes from my laboratory», licensed her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

So there appears to be a lot of work for patent lawyers to sort out in the next few months. But despite all the legal wrangling, CRISPR will without doubt continue to transform biomedical research in a way very seldom seen before and be transformative in the way we treat genetic diseases.

More information
General
Youtube Video «Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9»
New York Times article «A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA»
The Independent article «The more we looked into the mystery of Crispr, the more interesting it seemed»

Companies
Editas Medecine
CRISPR Theraeputics
i-net article «$25 million in series A financing for Basel-based CRISPR Therapeutics»
Intellia Therapeutics
collaboration with Novartis:
FierceBiotech article «Novartis adopts a CRISPR-Cas9 partner and jumps into the hot new R&D field»
FierceBiotech article «Novartis joins Atlas in launching a CRISPR Cas biotech with a $15M bankroll»
Xconomy article «CART + CRISPR = 1st-Of-Its-Kind Biotech Deal From Novartis, Intellia»

Patents
MIT Technology Review article «Who Owns the Biggest Biotech Discovery of the Century?»
Independent article «Scientific split - the human genome breakthrough dividing former colleagues»
Fiercebiotech article «A biotech war is brewing over control of the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 tech»

report Life Sciences

Novartis subsidiary developing novel biosimilars

18.01.2018

report

Roivant Sciences to join BaseLaunch Accelerator as Healthcare Partner

18.01.2018

Cookies

BaselArea.swiss uses cookies to ensure you get the best service on our website.
By continuing to browse the site, you are agreeing to the use of cookies.

Ok