From Pea Plants to Stem Cell Research
The roots of Czech biotechnology and life sciences go back to the 19th century when Gregor Mendel discovered the three laws of heredity, named in his honour. Today, more than 15 years after the Velvet Revolution, big foreign biotech and pharmaceutical companies have invested considerably into the establishment of manufacturing facilities. While Czech pharma companies rather focus on generics than on developing new drugs, the number and size of core biotech companies is still small. However, the government aims at providing investment incentives - it implemented the legal protection of biotechnological inventions already in 2000 and recently passed a new law providing tax benefits for research and development. Yet the biotech sector has way to grow.
Even though he did not know it at that time, the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, a Moravian native, laid the foundations for classical and molecular genetics. In 1865 he discovered the principles of hereditary transmission of specific characteristics in succesive generations of cross-bred hybrid pea plants. The principles which came to be known as Mendel's Laws went largely unnoticed by contemporary scientists, until his findings were rediscovered in 1900, some 16 years after his death. But this accomplishment does not mark the only success in Czech life sciences. Though the country is not among the pioneers of molecular biology according to Jiri Vanacek from the Technology Centre of the Academy of Sciences CR, some laboratories have very good results to show for in the field of modern biotechnology. Dr. Antonin Holy, director of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Academy of Sciences, synthesized nucleotide derivatives which have improved the therapy of diseases such as AIDS or hepatitis B. The hepatitis B drug Hepsera, produced by Gilead Sciences and approved by the FDA in 2002, is for instance based on a compound discovered by Holy's laboratory - as well as the active ingredient in Gilead's likewise FDA-approved Viread® for AIDS. Most recently Czech scientist got into media focus for generating the first embryonic stem cell lines in the country (see EuroBiotechNews 11/04). Czech scientists led by Prof. Blanka Rihova have co-developed an anti-cancer treatment which aims at avoiding side effects of chemotherapy by specifically targeting receptors on cancer cells. The method is currently clinically tested in the UK and USA.
While most Czech biotech and pharma companies are located in and around Prague, R&D centres are also located at larger university cities like Brno, Olomouc, Hradec Kralove, Plzen and Ceske Budejovice. Research facilities are part of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (AS CR), the universities or the Ministry of Health.
The Czech legislation concerning intellectual property rights - including the protection of biotechnology inventions - has been harmonized with the EU regulations. It covers patent protection of drugs valid for 15 years and European supplemental protection certificates for pharmaceutical products. After the country's accession to the EU in 2004 the responsibility for drug registration has been transferred from the State Institute for Drug Control to the EU authorities. The use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) is regulated by an act from 2000 which, similarly to EU measures, limits their introduction into the environment to government-registered users and requires a clear label for GMOs destined for both import and export.
Most of the Czech - in the European comparison few - biotechnology companies are small. They mainly focus on the production of monoclonal antibodies, recombinant proteins and diagnostic tools, as well as on vaccines and biodegradation (see above). And, as in many European countries, they face insufficient capitalization. It remains to be seen what proportion of the Euro348 million funding - earmarked for the Czech economy by the European Union's Structural Funds and the Czech Government last summer - will be spent on biotechnology. However, considerable investments have been made by foreign biotech and pharma companies into manu-facturing plants. Last year Baxter International opened a state-of-the-art facility for the production of cell culture-derived and recombinant vaccines against influenza, while Lonza Biotec s.r.o., the largest biotech company in the Czech Republic, has been expanding its facilities in with $60 million. Czech pharma companies rather produce generics and pharmaceutical ingredients than develop new drugs. According to Jiri Vanacek, even though some new drugs found their way to the market thanks to the interest of pharma companies and some others are patented and being clinically tested, many promising compounds “are still sitting in the drawers” for lack of commercialization possibilities.
In order to remedy this, parties from universities, research institutes, the public sector (e.g. the Investment and Business Development Agency CzechInvest and the Ministry of Industry and Trade), the private sector as well as technology transfer (Technology Centre of the Academy of Sciences CR) have proposed last April a biotechnology cluster in order to bundle know-how and attract investors (see
EuroBiotechNews 5/04). The initiative highlights a shift in how driving forces of economic development are seen - collaborative processes involving the aforementioned players rather than governmental policies and incentives. The biotechnology sector is not organized into a lobbying association because the primary aim is not the representation of companies.
Currently a new campus named MediPark worth Euro120 million is being set up in Brno by the Masaryk University Brno and the South Moravian Region - financed by a European Investment Bank loan and also substantially by the university. The campus, which is slated to support the creation of incubators and spin-off centres as well as to attract biotechnology investors to the region, will serve the fields of biology, medicine and chemistry. Jan Slovak, Vice-Rector for Strategy and Development at Masaryk University is optimistic about the schedule: “The Integrated Labs for Biomedical and Environmental Technologies will host scientists in August 2005, while the entire space of 70,000 m2 will grow within a few years. Next to the university buildings the INBIT incubator for biotechnology will be available in 2007 and we look forward to breeding new companies.”
Already well established is the Technology Centre in Prague, which aims at promoting the commercialization of university-based R&D and the development of small life science businesses.
Eventually, 140 years after Mendel's discoveries, a circle will be closed. Parts of the old cloister in Brno where the scientist monk worked will be developed into a modern conference and research centre - and a museum of genetics.
Investment and Business Development Agency CzechInvest;
Jiri Vanacek: “Pharmacy and biotechnology in the Czech Republic”, Technology Centre of the Academy of Sciences CR, Prague;