Luxembourg is home to the world’s largest steel company, the world’s highest per-capita income, and, according to a Mercer survey released earlier this month, holds the title of the world’s safest city.
And in recent years, Luxembourg has sought another global distinction, that of a top-tier life sciences sector. Earlier this month, the world’s sole remaining grand duchy — and Europe’s lowest-taxed country — took a key step toward developing a “center of excellence” for bioscience when it announced it had established a trans-Atlantic series of collaborations with three US-based institutions:
- The Partnership for Personalized Medicine, headed by Leland Hartwell, a 2001 Nobel laureate and president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle;
- Another Seattle research center, the Institute for Systems Biology, whose president Leroy Hood co-founded biotech giant Amgen; and
- The Arizona-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, whose president and scientific director Jeffrey Trent once served as scientific director at the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
TGen will lead the development of a new Integrated BioBank of Luxembourg, which has as its goal growing into a premier European hub for advanced biobanking, biotechnology, and biomedical informatics. The IBBL will implement uniform standards for collection, storage, and redistribution of tissue samples ranging from blood to tumors, then amass a database focused on centralized, molecular-based characterization of biospecimens.
The Institute for Systems Biology will collaborate with the University of Luxembourg to create the Center for Systems Biology Luxembourg. The two plan to complete a personalized human genome sequencing map for at least 100 subjects, in hopes of creating new methods for understanding the role genetic variations play in disease. ISB and the university also plan to develop integrated systems proteomics, RNA and cell analysis tools, and methods based on the institute’s discovery of protein blood “fingerprints” and single-cell characteristics reflecting the physiological state of the body's 50 major organs.
In addition, the Partnership for Personalized Medicine will join with TGen, the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center on research projects to develop molecular diagnostics for lung cancer.
Luxembourg — which said it will spend $200 million toward the collaboration — is a client of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which represented the European country in the two years of discussions with principals of the participating institutions that culminated in the June 6 announcement.
Gerry McDougall, leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Sciences practice, spoke recently with BioRegion News about the US institutions’ partnership with the government of Luxembourg, as well as its broader pursuit of the life sciences.
What are Luxembourg’s attractions to life sciences institutes and companies?
They have a very conscious, a very deep strategy in diversifying their economy. And they’re looking to do that around the knowledge economy, but specifically in the biotech sector. The major part of their economy is financial services, and they’re doing quite well. I think they have one of the largest [gross domestic products] per capita in the world [Luxembourg recorded the world’s highest gross national income per capita in 2006 with $71,240, according to the World Bank — Ed.]. They want to diversify that economy, and they’re really looking at a long-term strategy. They want to invest in research and development, in biomedical research, increase their investment over time, link that investment to education and healthcare, and create economic development on a longer-term scale.
A 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that Luxembourg enjoyed the lowest taxes in Europe. How crucial was that factor in establishing the relationships with Luxembourg?
To be honest with you, this is a completely separate project. That’s news to me. But it doesn’t surprise me, because of their wealth, and their ability to make things incredibly attractive from a business standpoint.
You said Luxembourg wants to diversify its economy. How is it concentrated today?
The majority of their economy is financial services and steel. Their economy was predominantly steel up to the 1960s and ‘70s. For a multitude of reasons, they lost their global competitiveness with Asia and India, and they diversified into financial services, which grew incredibly fast. Today the predominance of their economy is the financial services sector. They also have logistics and technology, so they’re looking to diversify into this area of growth, the life sciences.
Also in recent years, Luxembourg has drawn top global technology companies that include Microsoft and Skype. Does this life sciences initiative augur more of a change to the sciences for Luxembourg?
Absolutely. They’re looking at this as an area to get into, the biomedical sciences, and they have a longer-term strategy for that.
How did you come to be involved in the initiative with Luxembourg?
[Luxembourg officials] contacted PwC … at a BIO conference several years ago, and asked me to go out and speak about economic diversification in life sciences in February of last year. I talked about a couple of case studies, one of them being TGen in Phoenix, Ariz. That began a discussion for us to work with the Luxembourg government — PwC US and PwC Luxembourg — to facilitate some discussions with US institutions in creating strategic partnerships or strategic alliances.
In October of last year, we facilitated discussions with four or five US institutions, and [memorandums of understanding] were signed with three of them. And then we worked with the US institutions and the Luxembourg government on planning and due diligence related to the strategic alliances, and we facilitated that. And now they have these agreements. That’s how we got to where we are today.
What presence, if any, have the institutions involved in this effort had in Luxembourg until now?
Jeff Trent, the president and chief scientific officer [of TGen] — several of his faculty had some research alliances with individual investigators in Luxembourg. But that was not the catalyst; that was more of a coincidence.
TGen has served to spark or catalyze Arizona’s life sciences effort over roughly the past decade. How much was that a factor in Luxembourg looking to hook up with TGen?
Very much so. [The government of Luxembourg] did their own global due diligence related to this strategy. And in their research, TGen emerged as a case study, and that’s why they contacted me, because of my role in the creation of TGen [McDougall helped develop TGen as a consultant hired by a working group of academic, business, and civic leaders that successfully drew the institute to Arizona by raising $90 million over five months in 2002 — Ed.]. They looked at that as a really good example of how, where you don’t have critical mass, you can actually create something unique if you’re focused. You can be a player. That was very key to them in determining their strategy.
For TGen, does the Luxembourg consortium represent a different area of specialization, or build on something TGen already does in Phoenix?
Absolutely. [Biobanking] is a core competency that they have. The translational Genomics Research institution, they have very sophisticated biorepositories. That was one of the reasons why they were selected for this initial project.
Dr. Trent is the co-PI on the Atlas project, which is the project that is collecting oncology specimens around the country for [the National Cancer Institute].
Where will the consortium carry out its research? In facilities in Luxembourg, or within facilities of the American partner institutions?
It’s a combination. The goal is for knowledge transfer over the next three to five years, so that Luxembourg has the world-class sophistication to do these types of research — proteomics and the like in systems biology. Some of that will be done in the US, and Luxembourg scientists will be trained in the US, to then … re-establish themselves back in Luxembourg once the infrastructure is in place. The combination of activity will be done in the US and Luxembourg, with the goal and the plan of getting self-sustaining in Luxembourg at the end of these projects.
Any discussion at this point of how many additional people the institutions will need to carry out the research?
The specifics around the number of [full-time equivalent staffers] are still being worked out right now. And they’re being integrated into the growth plans of Luxembourg around their biotechnology initiatives, with the [Centre de Recherche Public-Santé, or Public Research Center for Health], the University of Luxembourg, and health care systems.
How will Luxembourg attempt to complement what has been done elsewhere in Europe? And to what extent is this competitive with other European countries?
They’re an incredibly sophisticated government, and they’re looking at unique and unmet needs in the healthcare system. So one of the things they want to focus on initially is molecular diagnostics, and become a center of excellence around molecular diagnostics, in order to enable the early detection of diseases. So they’re not trying to compete in deep established areas in the pharmaceutical or device areas. They’re trying to create their niche where they can take advantage of their geographic location. So they don’t see this as competitive.
These are joint projects with Luxembourg scientists and physicians working with US scientists and physicians. The disease focus and the projects were selected collaboratively. Lung cancer, for example, has emerged as an area [where] new techniques in proteomics have the physicians and scientists very optimistic that … an early diagnostic can be created. So they were developed collaboratively and complementary to where Luxembourg is heading.
You cited Luxembourg’s commitment to increasing research. Can you quantify how much that economic segment has increased in the past five years?
They’re looking to increase by percentage of GDP. I think they’re approaching 1 to 1.5 [percent], and they want to double that over the next several years, with R&D being up to 3 percent of GDP, which is consistent with the [national] strategy. And so that’s what the underpinning of this is.
How far back has Luxembourg sought to increase its presence in biotechnology?
They have research institutions in Luxembourg; they call them CRPs. And that’s been kind of their foundation. This has probably been several years in the making, and, now they’ve just accelerated that by creating these strategic alliances.
There was some concern a few years back about the level of public education in biotech, and there was talk about stepping that up. How has Luxembourg addressed the issue?
They’re putting a great deal of investment into education. The University of Luxembourg is expanding its programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, dramatically. They’re expanding the campus, and that is definitely one of the pillars of this strategy: To increase their education not only of the human resources talent pool within the country, but also the society. There are going to be outreach programs as well related to all of these projects.
The consortium has said Luxembourg will spend $200 million toward the projects over a three-year period. How much additional investment is that expected to leverage?
At this point, I don’t have a number on that. It’s meant to be a long-term strategy. They want to be self-sustaining within the country, so this is about knowledge transfer and long-term strategic relationships with these organizations. It will include a discussion of renewals and spinoff companies, but right now, there isn’t a number tied to it.
What role, if any, will the European Union play?
Luxembourg [works] within the region. They’re so centrally located, so [for] all these projects in lung cancer and some of the future therapeutic areas that Dr. Hood will look at, they will need to collaborate with the greater region of Belgium, France, and Germany. Luxembourg is strategically positioned right in the middle of 4 million people. They’re very close to European cities. So it’s going to be key that this is a European initiative. It has to go beyond the borders of Luxembourg.
The University of Luxembourg is the single academic research university in the country. How important was it, as a result, to bring institutes from the US into this effort?
The university’s expansion has been a recent phenomenon. Their investment in the University of Luxembourg is [because] they’re creating an institute in systems biology in the future, and that was a coincidence of the link with the Institutes for Systems Biology in Seattle with Dr. Lee Hood.
As the press release says, that’s a great synergy. But when we began this, we were not aware of their expansion programs when we were linking them. It was more about Dr. Hood’s work around personalized medicine … It was more the scientific projects themselves, about personalized medicine and Dr. [Leland] Hartwell and the Partnership for Personalized Medicine. It was a necessity to create a state-of-the-art biorepository to be able to do that project, as well as Dr. Hood’s project, which will need biospecimens as well. It was more about world-class excellence than it was about the existing infrastructure in place.
On the planned biobank, who would run the facility? A government entity? A public-private group?
It’s going to be a separate foundation that will run the IBBL. It will be funded by the government, but it will be independent.
In terms of cost, have any figures been broken out for the cost of the biobank or the other two components?
No. They’re really looking at it as a whole, not as individual projects.
Are there locations in place for any of the three proposed projects?
The two research projects — the Institute for Systems Biology, and the Commission on Lung Cancer — those would be at the CRP Santé. The ISB projects would be coordinated through the University of Luxembourg. And then the IBBL, the Integrated Biorepository Bank of Luxembourg, would be an entity to be formed and located in Luxembourg.
For the biobank, have any institutions agreed to send samples for collection?
Not as of yet. There have been some discussions, but it hasn’t been created. And there are some very good working relationships with the surrounding countries, and some very large hospital systems.
What are the next steps for the consortium partners?
They are developing implementation plans, and moving forward as aggressively as possible [to] past this announcement, and get to reach scientific milestones, and hopefully clinical applications in the next few years.
What’s the timeframe for ramping up on these three initiatives?
They want to be fully operational within six to nine months.
What’s the potential for additional US or European institutions to join any of these efforts?
I think this is a great model. We have very complementary strategies, and these chronic diseases have no borders. They are built to be long-term and sustainable relationships over time. And I think it has a very high likelihood that that’s going to happen. Luxembourg is a wonderful partner for these US institutions. These relationships are with the ministers of economy and foreign trade; culture, higher education, and research; and health. That is unprecedented. As they expand their biotechnology initiatives, it would be a strong possibility that additional relationships could be established, in the US or elsewhere.