Health Care, News

Breaking Through

There are currently dozens of pure Norwegian biotechnology companies with strong growth potential. The vision of many organizations – including the Research Council of Norway – is to provide the support necessary to enable Norway to become the most innovative...

There are currently dozens of pure Norwegian biotechnology companies with strong growth potential. The vision of many organizations – including the Research Council of Norway – is to provide the support necessary to enable Norway to become the most innovative country in the world. Although the Norwegian biotechnology industry may not be the global leader, if one looks at the industry related to the small size of Norway’s population, the results are impressive.

The Norwegian biotech industry is thriving for a number of reasons, not least because of the strong support that inventors, innovators and companies receive from institutions such as the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Medinnova, MedCoast, InnoMed, the Norwegian Board of Health, the Research Council of Norway, MedTech Trondheim, SINTEF and others who share a vision of improving health care throughout the world.

Also playing a significant part in the bringing together of industry and research organizations is the Norwegian Bioindustry Association (NBA), established in 2001 by representatives of Norwegian biotechnological industries and the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (NHO). The NBA is an independent member organization with the objective of promoting the development of Norwegian biotechnological trade and research.

One of MedTech Trondheim’s major endeavours is the Operating Room of the Future (ORF) project. The MedTech Trondheim cluster has established two large ORFs where it is developing and testing new technologies, surgical methods, and logistics, ergonomics and communication

There When You Need Them
This vision of innovative excellence and improved worldwide health care is also strong in Norway’s third-largest city, Trondheim. The central Norwegian city is a hotbed of research and development activity in the areas of biotechnology and health. Within an area of just one square kilometre, one finds the doctors of St. Olav’s Hospital, the scholars of NTNU and the scientists of SINTEF, all pursuing the goal of a healthier world.

A long working relationship has fine-tuned the communication between these very different parties and has resulted in a number of breakthroughs in recent years. The coalition between these organizations is known as MedTech Trondheim, and has been instrumental in developing new technology, finding new uses for existing technology and establishing industry based on new technology, knowledge and methods.

Another key supporter is InnoMed – the National Centre of Innovation and Business Development in Health Care. Managed by SINTEF, InnoMed was founded in 1998 and acts by continually monitoring developments in the health field, and then works with businesses in finding opportunities related to these developments.

From this type of support comes a spin-off effect as small biotech companies are first created, and then traditionally look beyond Norway’s borders in seeking out further customers and strategic alliances.

Spinning Off into Success
Eagle Ultrasound is one company that has spun off from MedTech. It specializes in equipment that can produce an extremely sharp ultrasound picture of the fetus – a level of clarity that until recently was unknown to physicians and expectant parents alike.

Another example of spin-off success is Vingmed Sound. Established in 1986, this company is a pioneer in the development of ultrasound Doppler technology for cardiac diagnosis, with over 11,000 units now delivered worldwide. Vingmed Sound is now part of the GE family under the name GE Vingmed Sound.

As MedTech holds a strong international position in the fields of minimally invasive surgery and image-based diagnostics, it is natural that a spin-off company has been established to capitalize on the breakthroughs in these fields. This company is called Mison, and its highly touted Sonowand is an intra-operative imaging and navigation system for brain surgery based on 3D ultrasound.

25 Million for Your Thoughts
One cannot expect breakthroughs without research, but research is expensive, takes time and provides no guarantee that the final result will be positive. That is why it is so important to the Norwegian research community that its efforts – and ideas – are not going unnoticed on the international level.

Positive proof that Norwegian ideas are being noticed was again confirmed early in 2004 when Oslo-based Amersham Health AS (now part of GE Healthcare) pledged NOK 25 million in support to establish a centre that is outfitted with PET technology. The establishment of this centre is the first concrete project for the Norwegian development group “Forum for Innovation”. The total cost of the centre, when completed, will be NOK 100 million, and the Forum for Innovation has secured the rest of the funding from the Norwegian Department of Health and the Research Council of Norway.

Chips Anyone?
NorChip AS is working closely with the National Hospital of Norway, SINTEF and the Research Council of Norway in relation to a doctoral project that may someday lead to the first chip-based diagnostic test in Norway. The project relates to detection, analysis and quantifying of the HPV virus in cytology diagnosis and is geared towards helping to improve detection methods, while at the same time reducing the number of gynaecological tissue samples needed to make a solid diagnosis.

It has also now been documented that such a data chip will not only lead to a dramatically reduced incidence of advanced cancer of the cervix, but also prove to be a very good investment for NorChip and the other organizations – EUREKA and PROGIT – helping to finance this project.

NorChip’s data chip-based diagnostic tests may bring about early detection of a number of severe medical conditions. A current chip-based test project could lead to a dramatically reduced incidence of advanced cancer of the cervix.

The Biggest Battle
The small Norwegian biotechnology company PlasmAcute has developed a new blood analysis method that can make it possible to identify infections in a much earlier stage than currently possible. The weakness of traditional analysis lies in the fact that an infection cannot be identified until it has developed to such a degree that it can be measured in the bloodstream. In the case of the HIV virus, this can mean that infected blood can slip unidentified through blood bank screenings.

In an important project currently taking place in South Africa, PlasmAcute is collaborating with its German strategic ally Qiagen GmbH in order to automate a testing process related to lymphocyte separation methods that allows earlier detection in infected patients. The range of sicknesses being targeted include the diagnosis of syphilis and HIV patients in clinics in South Africa, as well as the diagnosis of newborn babies with HIV-positive mothers.

Sugar High, Sugar Low
Norwegian researchers have recently discovered a gene defect which not only explains why some people are born with a life-threatening low-blood-sugar condition, but which may also potentially shed light upon those with the opposite condition: diabetes.

In the case study family, insulin production is too high, leading to dangerously low blood sugar, while diabetes is characterized by too little insulin, causing high blood sugar. By comparing the family’s disease with diabetes, new information about both causes and potential cures of this widespread condition may be generated. The study shows how an enzyme defect that affects fatty acid degradation leads to overproduction of insulin, clearly indicating that there are links between fat and sugar that have not previously been apparent.

The Ultimate Map
Mapping the human genome has long been a dream for many scientists, but the cost of such a process has seriously hindered success. This may be changing. A small company in Oslo is working to reduce these costs radically, which may result in making such a mapping process economically accessible to a wide range of scientists.

Founder Preben Lexow of the company LingVitae says that currently such a process costs approximately $100 million – the reason being the expense of mapping several billion molecules with the use of electron microscopes. However, the company is currently developing a unique patented DNA analysis technology designed to convert DNA sequences into Design Polymers that will enable scientists to analyse individual DNA molecules – but with massive parallelism. 
The main patent for LingVitae’s process has been approved, and another 16 are pending. Should LingVitae succeed in its endeavour, the ripple effect will be tremendous. If scientists and physicians can more easily analyse the make-up of individual human beings, there are many relevant applications. One would be the ability of physicians to know exactly what medicines a specific individual can or cannot tolerate. This is important, given that in the United States alone approximately 100,000 people die annually from the side effects of prescription drugs.

Wash Your Hands!
We have all heard that phrase before, but nowhere is it more appropriate and important than in a hospital environment. A project spearheaded by the Norwegian company MainSani and supported by the Research Council of Norway and the European Union is in the trial phase; if all goes well, it will result in a new product that will help to reduce the huge number of hospital infections caused by hands that are not thoroughly disinfected. According to Petter Mehren in MainSani, an EU survey indicates that individual health personnel come in contact with an average of 35 patients daily. The new apparatus will not only reduce the number of bacteria spread by infected hands – it will also cut down on the time needed to disinfect hands by nearly 75%.

Straight from the Heart
In the future, the international health care market will likely be seeing a tiny microsensor that will improve the way medical personnel monitor the status of a patient’s heart activity. All this thanks to the efforts of a small college in Norway. Vestfold University College, backed by the National Hospital of Norway and Medinnova, is spearheading this four-year project.

Initiated in 2003, the goal of the project is the development of a sensor with a maximum diameter of two millimetres. The sensor can be placed on the surface of the heart to monitor the organ’s condition during such procedures as bypass surgery. Should the heart suffer any complications, doctors will immediately receive the necessary data that will enable them to react swiftly and appropriately.

Innovation as Usual
The Norwegian company PhotoCure has long been known for its success related to the development and methods of treatment relating to cancer. Now this work has not only been rewarded by commercial and professional success, but with a major Norwegian award – the 2003 Nyskapningsprisen, given to a company that has shown a major innovation that has been brought to market. Specifically, the jury pointed out the importance of PhotoCure’s most advanced pharmaceutical product – Metwix – and the positive effect that it has had on the treatment of skin cancer and pre-cancerous skin lesions.

The key characteristic of PhotoCure’s patented red light source Aktilite is its ability to penetrate human tissue. This allows for more effective skin cancer treatment.

Listen to the Sound

NTNU in Trondheim has recently announced the development of a ground-breaking ultrasound technology. With this it is possible to examine human embryos on a level of detail that was previously unknown. Since the summer of 2002, researchers at NTNU have worked diligently to make it possible to produce much sharper ultrasound pictures in three-dimensional format. This new technology is now being clinically used at the National Center for Fetal Medicine in Trondheim. Professor Sturla Eik-Nes of the Center is clear in his diagnosis of the new product: he feels that it is nothing less than revolutionary.
On and On
Some say that there is no such thing as luck – rather, there is a combination of hard work, preparation and seizing the opportunity when it arises. Look for the Norwegian biotechnology and health care sectors to continue to roll up their sleeves, as they show that the story of Norwegian research indeed does not stop here.