Cell and gene therapies gain momentum in Basel

January 17, 2023 - 5 minutes
Novartis, Basel, Switzerland. Photo/Shutterstock

Companies specializing in the research and development of innovative cell and gene therapies continue to spring up all around the globe, and a growing number are choosing the Swiss city of Basel as their base. 

These companies are taking advantage of the talent pool, academic institutions and investors that the area has to offer, culturing a colony of entrepreneurs eager to make their mark in the sector. This article highlights the driving forces behind Basel’s snowballing reputation as a biosciences hub, and notes some of the cell and gene therapies success stories arising from this innovative biotech powerhouse.

Europe’s burgeoning beacon of biotech

Boston and Cambridge in the U.S. have long been associated with cutting-edge biopharma developments, with big names like Pfizer and Merck serving to bolster the innovative ecosystem.

Across the Atlantic, the area around the Swiss city of Basel has established itself as a leading European innovation hub, and is home to more than 700 companies across the biotechnology, digital health, medical technology, chemistry and advanced manufacturing sectors. This includes pharmaceutical giants such as Roche, Novartis and Johnson & Johnson, all of which have international headquarters or substantial facilities in the region to take advantage of the academic institutions and local talent pool of more than 31,000 life sciences professionals.

Switzerland’s political and economic stability, along with capital gains tax exemptions for startups, has created the environment for an ever-increasing number of academic researchers and budding entrepreneurs to turn their big ideas into fledgling companies. Whether these startups are born from innovations in the private sector or academic institutions, financial investment is key, and Basel is home to a wealth of private investors and venture capital firms. 

Even with sufficient funding in place, the challenge of launching, staffing and maintaining a successful company is significant, with around half of all new startups failing. Fortunately, the Basel area hosts many dedicated programs and support networks – such as accelerators and incubators – which can provide startups with legal and logistical support, extra investment, and access to a network of experienced professionals.

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Taking cell and gene therapies to the next level

T3 Pharma – a clinical-stage startup capitalizing on the natural behaviors of live bacteria – is one company taking advantage of the support programs that Basel has to offer. It is one of a host of local companies focusing on cell and gene therapies as promising methods of treating or curing diseases. T3 Pharma has developed a cancer therapy platform that uses genetically engineered bacteria to selectively target and deliver specific protein payloads into the cells of solid tumors, stimulating the body’s immune response.

The company originated as a spinout from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum and – with the help of BaseLaunch, a biotech accelerator and incubator – successfully raised 40 million CHF ($43.2 million) in funding from venture capital firms and other investors. T3 Pharma has maintained strong university links, and much of its early-stage development stems from basic academic research in the local area. 

T3 Pharma CEO and co-founder Simon Ittig explained: “We have close ties with academia and, in addition to regularly hiring staff from the local microbiology departments, many of our initial concepts stem from grants and funding streams shared with universities. I would say Basel really has the edge, especially on the pharma side of things. There’s just no need to move to places like Boston when you can set up shop here, and everything is right on your doorstep.”

Revolutionizing treatment

Another company thriving in the Basel area’s Petri dish of innovation is Cimeio Therapeutics. The company hopes to revolutionize treatment for certain life-threatening diseases by eliminating the chemotherapy and radiation therapy required as part of hematopoietic stem-cell transplants and adoptive cell therapies. Its immunotherapies simultaneously deplete diseased cells while using cell-shielding technology to protect healthy transplanted ones. 

Like T3 Pharma, Cimeio Therapeutics was founded on the back of promising academic research, with support and initial financing from BaseLaunch. It was then developed further with the help of Ridgeline, the Versant Ventures Discovery Engine in Basel, which culminated in the recent investment of $50 million by Versant Ventures. 

Lukas Jeker, founder of Cimeio Therapeutics, said: “The science coming out of Basel is absolutely on-par with the well-known US innovation hubs, and we hope that our success story will prove that establishing a company in Basel is a viable European alternative.”

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It isn’t just startups making waves however, and much larger companies in the greater Basel area are also investing heavily in these novel technologies. For example, Novartis recently unveiled its new $91 million cell and gene therapy facility just outside of Basel, while CDMO Celonic is in the process of building a manufacturing facility for gene vectors and cell therapy right in the heart of the city. 

Basel’s bright future

Cell and gene therapies have gone from strength to strength since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, with big names investing huge sums of money into the field. However, an ever-increasing number of startups with innovative technologies are also capitalizing on this momentum, carving out their own niche in the local ecosystem and looking to propel novel research into commercially viable, and potentially life-changing, ventures.

The future looks bright for cell and gene therapy, and Basel is proving itself as the place to be for entrepreneurs wanting to make their mark in these burgeoning sectors.

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