Swedish officials plan to use around $23 million in public- and private-sector grants to open a new center on Jan. 1 aimed at developing new proteomic tools for discovering neurodegenerative disease biomarkers.
The Uppsala Berzelii Technology Center for Neurodiagnostics, located on the campus of Uppsala University, is one of four labs being created throughout Sweden during the next few months, each focusing on different areas of research. Each center is named after Jöns Jakob Berzilius, the Swedish chemist who coined the term “protein.”
In addition to Uppsala, the Karolinska Institute will be the site of another center looking into brain-related diseases. One center based at Stockholm University will conduct research on synthetic chemistry, and another located at the Umeå Plant Science Center will perform plant biotechnology research.
At Uppsala, the goal will be two-fold: Discover biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and develop tools for in situ cell analysis.
“The whole center is not about finding biomarkers,” said Fredrik Nikolajeff, a professor at Uppsala who coordinated the effort to get the center at the university. “Rather, in accordance with a longstanding tradition of method development for protein analysis at Uppsala University, we will develop more sensitive and multiplexed analysis tools which can enable biomarker information and aid the development of personalized medicine in neurodegeneration.”
He also pointed out clinical proteomic studies of chronic pain as a possible field of research.
“Recent data from the hospital here shows that chronic pain has components that are very similar to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Nikolajeff said. “Since chronic pain affects so many people, and the burden on society is so high, this is something we definitely want to investigate further.”
The four Berzelii centers will receive about SEK170 million [$23 million] in funding over 10 years. The Swedish Research Council and VINNOVA will provide a maximum of SEK 100 million to each center while other sources such as the business community and academia will provide at least SEK 70 million to each center.
The SEK 170 million is meant strictly as initial funding and each center will need to find additional operating funds. Nikolajeff could not say for sure where the additional funding for the Uppsala center would come from but said he was confident the money will be found. He also said that funding for research in Sweden has been traditionally lower than in the US and researchers there are used to doing more with less.
The Uppsala center has already drawn interest from drug and diagnostic companies including AstraZenaca and GE Healthcare. Neither has pledged financial support for the center but will give center researchers access to certain equipment and knowledge, a resource that can prove invaluable, Nikolajeff said.
“There are a lot of instruments in the industrial sector that, maybe, we don’t have yet,” he said. “One bottleneck that has been identified [in trying to get] industry and academia together is that mostly, results go from academia out to industry but not vice versa. We need access to the equipment that industry has.”
In return, AstraZeneca and GE will have the chance to commercialize any scientific applications or technologies developed at the center.
“The whole center is not about finding biomarkers. Rather, in accordance with a longstanding tradition of method development for protein analysis at Uppsala University, we will develop more sensitive and multiplexed analysis tools which can enable biomarker information and aid the development of personalized medicine in neurodegeneration.”
According to Nikolajeff, AstraZeneca’s main interest in the Uppsala center is in biomarkers and more sophisticated screening instruments, while GE is hoping research will lead to ways to improve its protein analysis technologies, he said.
Officials at both companies did not respond to requests for interviews.
Other biotech companies collaborating with the center include Olink Bioscience, Affibody, and Gyros. Björn Ekström, CEO of Olink, a protein-analysis technology firm based in Uppsala, said the company will share information with center researchers on certain projects, and in the future may provide funding and consumables such as reagents depending on the nature of the project.
In return, “We’d like to see new applications for technologies for analyzing proteins,” Ekström said.
Akademiska University Hospital will provide Uppsala researchers access to biological samples and will perform clinical studies.
The center at Uppsala will be located in space already available at the university though its exact location has not been yet determined. A formal management and administrative structure for the center is also still being formed, Nikolajeff said.
Because Uppsala University is already equipped with MALDI mass spectrometry systems as well as tandem mass specs, real-time PCR systems, and liquid chromatography systems, and Nikolajeff said he does not anticipate using initial funds for the purchase of expensive instruments. Rather, the money will go toward hiring research staff.