As Sweden’s capital, Stockholm is perhaps best known for its picturesque islands and bridges, crayfish festivals, and wondrously preserved medieval architecture, but the city is also a hub of biotech enterprise.
Stockholm’s biotech industry is particularly strong when it comes to potential new treatments for rare illnesses ranging from sickle cell disease to various cancers. There is also a heavy focus on neurodegenerative conditions, with several biotechs conducting early-stage clinical trials on treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Unsurprisingly for a city where Nobel Prizes have been awarded every year for more than a century, academic research is at the core of many of the biotech products in development, with a number of biotech companies starting out as spin-offs from the prestigious Karolinska Institute.
With such a range of biotechs to choose from, narrowing it down to ten was far from easy, but we had the help of inside experts. In no particular order, these are the ones which made our cut.
Dendritic cells play a key role in the body’s natural immune response, and in recent years considerable research has been undertaken into using them as a form of immunotherapy, activating a potent immune response against cancer cells.
Immunicum is one of the leading players in this field. Its lead candidate involves injecting dendritic cells directly into the patient’s tumor, stimulating immune T cells to recognize and destroy the cancerous tissue.
This experimental therapy has already been evaluated in a range of solid tumours and is undergoing a phase II clinical trial in patients with metastatic renal cell carcinoma. Immunicum ia also exploring alternative options for dendritic cell immunotherapy, including administering it as a vaccine and using it to boost the potency of CAR-T therapy, a very promising new form of cancer treatment.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the bone marrow with no available cure, meaning that most patients die within five years of diagnosis. The main focus of Oncopeptides is developing a small molecule drug called melflufen, which is in phase III for late-stage multiple myeloma patients.
The drug exploits unique properties of multiple myeloma cells to release high concentrations of cancer-fighting agents, preventing tumor cells from replicating and ultimately killing them.
The company is now getting ready for the launch of melflufen, planned for 2020. From a commercial perspective, the drug’s potential has attracted great interest from investors as the market for pomalidomide – the standard treatment for multiple myeloma patients – has grown substantially over the past six years to more than €2B.
Field: Kidney disease
The company develops new drug delivery systems, which allow existing market-approved drugs for kidney disease, such as budesonide, to be delivered in high concentrations directly to the disease site. This makes them more effective and minimizing their side effects.
One of Calliditas’ products, an oral version of the well-known drug budesonide, is currently in a global phase III trial in 450 patients for treatment of the kidney condition known as Berger’s disease.
Field: Blood diagnostics
Stockholm has a rich history in the field of blood diagnostics, going back to the 1950s when a Swedish scientist developed Europe’s first ever automatic blood cell counter. Today Boule Diagnostics is Sweden’s leading company in this field, developing and manufacturing blood count systems which it supplies to small and medium sized hospitals worldwide.
Boule’s devices measure red blood cells, white blood cells and platelet counts in one minute. This information is often vital for pregnant people, or those with illnesses such as leukemia, viral infections and metabolic disorders.
The company listed on Nasdaq Stockholm in 2011, and is looking to expand into emerging markets, with a particularly strong position in the rapidly growing Indian hematology market.
Medivir began 31 years ago as a biotech that developed retroviral drugs in partnership with various global pharmaceutical giants. However, after developing successful products for HIV and Hepatitis C, the company moved into oncology research in 2015. Today it focuses on treatments for a range of difficult to treat cancers with low survival rates, including various liver cancers, and pancreatic cancer.
Medivir currently has several drugs in phase II, including remetinostat, a treatment which reduces the itching and increased risk of infection associated with various skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma.
This biotech’s mission is to develop a cure for type 1 diabetes. In particular, the company targets the mechanisms that cause the body’s own immune system to attack insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.
The company’s main product in development is a form of immunotherapy designed to preserve beta cells by stopping the immune system in its tracks, which is currently in phase IIb clinical trials. Diamyd Medical is also evaluating a potential product that aims to actually regrow beta cells in patients with severe diabetes. This is currently being assessed in patients for the first time.
AlzeCure is a biotech that evolved out of research programs at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute investigating two characteristic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease: the telltale formation of amyloid plaques in the brain and cognitive dysfunction.
The company has raised more than €10M from venture capital in the past two years to finance phase I trials for its various small molecule drugs. These are intended to try and combat Alzheimer’s by enhancing the function of nerve cells in the brain and improving their ability to communicate with each other.
AlzeCure is also hoping to potentially reach the market in other fields, with similar products planned for sleep apnea, Parkinson’s disease, and cognitive dysfunction resulting from traumatic brain injury.
Another offshoot of the Karolinska Institute, Kancera is a small biotech with four new cancer therapies at the preclinical or phase I stage. These drugs aim to either stopping metastasis, increasing the sensitivity of tumours to other therapies, or destroying cancer cells altogether.
Some of these drugs – made up of enzymes called histone deacetylase inhibitors – are also known to be useful in the treatment of inflammation and pain. In December 2018, the company formed a new partnership with German pharma company Grünenthal to try and take these candidate drugs to market for treating neuropathic pain.
Field: Vascular disease
Vascular disease has been described as the leading cause of death in the world, affecting more than 500 million people worldwide. The value of the vascular disease treatment market at more than €100B.
Athera Biotechnologies is a biotech specialising in developing treatments that inhibit vascular inflammation. Over the past four years, they have raised nearly €9M from venture capital to fund clinical trials.
Athera’s flagship product is an antibody that mimics the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response. The antibody is in a phase IIa trial on patients with arterial inflammation. Preclinical data also suggests that this antibody could help preserve cardiac function in patients who have suffered heart attacks.
Field: Neurodegenerative diseases
BioArctic is one of Stockholm’s main players in the field of neurodegenerative diseases. Building on research conducted at Uppsala University, this biotech has long had twin focuses on both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The company has immunotherapies for both diseases at various stages of clinical research in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies. Most advanced is an antibody currently in a phase IIb trial on early Alzheimer’s patients, in partnership with Japanese pharma Eisai.
BioArctic have also expanded into the medical device field in recent years, receiving a €6.4M grant as part of Horizon 2020 to develop a regenerative treatment for patients with spinal cord injury.
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including the BBC, New York Times, and Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter89.
Images via Shutterstock and E. Resko