Magazine Article | June 1, 2010

Norway's Growing Biopharma Industry

Source: Life Science Leader

By Suzanne Elvidge

Norway has a growing pharmaceutical industry with strengths in therapeutics and diagnostics in a number of key areas, including cancer and neurosciences. With its strong history in the biomedical sciences, this makes it an attractive location for companies that want to establish a base or set up a collaboration in Norway.

“The Norwegian biopharma industry is emerging and has ambitions to become a significant international entity, though it is not yet very well known outside Scandinavia,” says Bo I. Nilsson, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer, Clavis Pharma. Clavis Pharma is an oncology-focused pharmaceutical company based in Oslo, with a number of anticancer therapeutics in clinical development.
According to the Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry in Norway, the total pharmaceutical sales in Norway were about $3.05 billion (U.S.) in 2009. The turnover grew by about 2.7%, adjusted for inflation, which was slowed by pricing and reimbursement policies, as well as the so-called “patent cliff.” The generic drug market has also grown in Norway and made up 40% of the market in 2008.

“The biotechnology segment is small but growing, and it is receiving more global attention,” says Erik Christensen, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of DiaGenic. Based in Oslo, DiaGenic is developing patient-friendly in vitro diagnostics for the early diagnosis of serious disease. In fact, the biotech sector is still very young in Norway, arising in the early 1990s from spinouts from the country’s hospitals and universities. Photocure was one of the first of this generation of biotech companies, created in 1993 to commercialize opportunities from the Norwegian Radium Hospital, the largest comprehensive cancer center in northern Europe.

Norway has expertise in a number of key segments in the life sciences industry, including cancer and neuroscience, in both therapeutics and diagnostics. Another key sector for Norway is bioinformatics, based on its extensive population data.

In 2007, the group of companies that had grown out of the Norwegian Radium Hospital and its associated Institute for Cancer Research became part of the Oslo Cancer Cluster (OCC), one of the Norwegian Centers of Expertise. The OCC has the aim of developing the future cancer drugs and diagnostics in Norway, explains Jónas Einarsson, M.D., CEO of the Norwegian Radium Hospital Research Foundation and Chairman of the Board, OCC. “One of the strengths of the OCC is that it is disease-specific,” says Steinar Aamdal, M.D., Ph.D., professor of clinical cancer research at the Norwegian Radium Hospital. “It also helps smaller companies to have access to clinic trials.”

Norway has a long history in neuroscience research. The Centre for Molecular Biology and Neuroscience (CMBN), one of the Norwegian Centers of Excellence, has collaborated with the Medical Imaging Laboratory (MI Lab) and Innovation Norway to launch the Nansen Neuroscience Network (NNN), which will link science and industry in Norway and throughout the world.

Imaging And Diagnostics
The MI Lab at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is one of Norway’s Centers for Research-based Innovation. The MI Lab’s reputation in medical imaging has grown since the 1970s, and its key areas of expertise are ultrasound, MRI, and image-guided surgery, including an “operating room of the future” that integrates preoperative MRI and CT imaging with ultrasound during the operation.

The Norwegian biopharma industry has key examples of imaging and diagnostics, explains Per Walday, Ph.D., CEO, PCI Biotech. “I believe the most successful life sciences company in Norway to be Nycomed Imaging, which became the world leader developing in vivo diagnostics, such as contrast agents. There are also some interesting and rather successful companies developing in vitro diagnostics.”

One of Norway’s key assets for the biopharma industry is its wealth of information from population-based screening, including studies in central Norway (Nord-Trøndelag – the HUNT Study) and the mother and child cohort managed by the Norwegian Institute for Public Health. “We found that people were happy to be involved — more than 80% of the people invited turned up for the first HUNT Study,” says Per Foss, Ph.D., CEO, HUNT Biosciences.

Data and biological samples from these studies, as well as from Norway’s national registries, provide the basis of national biobanks, which contain information from nearly 10% of the total population. The data in these biobanks are linked using the 11-digit personal identification number that is issued to all Norwegians at birth. This allows monitoring of disease prevalence across a population or comparisons of samples from pre- and postdiagnosis and pre- and post-treatment. Combining the breadth of the data and the length of the studies, these biobanks provide an invaluable tool for academic and industry researchers.

“While some of the larger pharmaceutical companies are establishing biobanks, they cannot match the quantity and quality of the data from Norway,” says Foss. “Norway has been highlighted in European and international evaluations, particularly for its work in bioinformatics,” says Ole Petter Ottersen, M.D., Ph.D., professor and rector of the University of Oslo.

Norway can provide pharmaceutical companies with access to high-quality and well-supported research. The country has created initiatives such as the Norwegian Centers of Expertise (NCE), Nordic Centers of Excellence (NCoE), and Centers for Research-based Innovation. Innovation Norway’s NCE program provides professional and financial support for regional innovation clusters, while the Norwegian Research Council, encourages explorative research at an international level through the NCoE scheme. The SFI scheme, also provided by the Research Council, is supporting long-term partnership between academic groups and industry, as well as encouraging international companies to establish R&D bases in Norway.

“The Norwegian government has started to understand the opportunities and is providing good support mechanisms. This is a country that is in very good economic shape,” says Walday. “The Centers of Excellence are already bearing fruit,” adds Ottersen.
Innovation Norway has formal programs to help researchers and small companies to set up collaborations and can provide some level of funding. According to Øyvind Bruland, M.D., Ph.D., professor of clinical oncology at the Norwegian Radium Hospital and co-founder of Algeta, “The Norwegian Research Foundation can also provide support. This can help small companies move from preclinical to phase 1 development.” Algeta is an oncology company with a first-in-class, highly targeted alpha-pharmaceutical in clinical development for the treatment of bone metastases.

Norway’s well-organized healthcare system makes it a viable location for clinical trials, particularly to phase 2. “One of Norway’s strengths is the excellence of its clinical work. Though it’s too small to carry out phase 3 trials, Norway can be a base for smaller high-quality trials within its first-rate healthcare system. Norwegian patients have a great confidence in the medical staff and are very willing to take part in clinical trials,” says Aamdal.

In addition, Norway offers many opportunities for collaboration between industry and academia. As many companies have spun out of hospitals and research institutions, their history and location keep the clinicians, industry scientists, and academic researchers close to each other and close to the clinic, supporting translational research.

“There is a lot of very good academic and hospital research, and the interest in building value from this has increased dramatically,” says Walday. “The close collaboration between research institutes and industry in Norway helps accelerate the development of drugs,” adds Einarsson. “As an example, Photocure took two drugs to global markets over a period of about four years each, at a lower cost than average and with only 50 employees.”

Norway’s highly educated workforce offers pharmaceutical companies access to local, experienced, and well-trained staff, particularly after the recent restructuring in a number of the larger pharmaceutical companies in Norway. “Norway offers a loyal workforce and high ethical standards,” says Christensen.

For individuals, it also offers a good quality of life. “Norway has excellent working conditions, including good salaries and benefits,” says Ottersen. “As a country, there is a very strong focus on research, with a steady increase in resources going into R&D, as well as a very well-organized healthcare system. All of this is building a very strong biopharma environment,” he concludes.