In-vitro drug testing puts spin into Spain

November 9, 2001

Spain has the expertise to thrive in the world of spin-offs but red tape chokes the way, Rebecca Warden reports.

Spain's first science park is in business. Eight pharmaceutical and medical companies are setting up research and development departments at Barcelona University's science park ( ). Last month, they outlined their research plans.

Advancell, one of Spain's first biotech spin-offs, and fellow science park tenant Kymos are to provide a one-stop service for the pharmaceutical industry, combining in-vitro models and biological fluid analysis. The park's founders hope that moves such as these will lay the foundations for a biotech "cluster" in Spain.

Advancell has developed in-vitro cell models that can be used to test the efficiency and toxicology of new drugs or cosmetic products at an early stage.

Chief executive officer Luis Ruiz-Avila says: "We can provide companies with lab information that will allow them to take decisions before they invest a lot of money in a new product." Its specialities include in-vitro models of drug metabolism in the liver, angiogenesis (blood vessel formation), wound healing and skin.

Regulatory requirements mean that in-vitro drug testing cannot entirely replace experiments on animals, though it can significantly reduce the need for them. A ban on animal testing in the cosmetics industry came into force last year. In-vitro technology has since come into its own. Advancell has developed a model of human skin that is being used to test the efficiency of anti-wrinkle creams.

Spin-offs are a relatively new development in Spain, where co-operation between university and industry generally takes the form of research contracts.

Senen Vilar", professor of cell biology at Barcelona and one of the founders of Advancell, detects a change of attitude in academics over the past three years. They are now more likely to see spin-offs as an option.

In a field such as biology, where jobs in Spanish industry are scarce, senior scientists are also motivated by the need to provide work for the latest generation of researchers. There are five or six biotech spin-offs in the pipeline at the university, according to Xavier Testar, director of Barcelona's innovation centre.

For many, the remaining barriers to a spin-off culture developing in Spain are bureaucratic. By law, university lecturers are not allowed to own more than 10 per cent of a private company. There is no provision for them to take time out of their academic careers to oversee business interests without losing tenure. "There really is no incentive," Vilar" says. Although he is one of the driving forces behind Advancell and acts as scientific adviser, he cannot be officially employed by the company.

The Spanish government is seeking to change this. Secretary of state for universities, Ram"n Marim"n, says the government intends to introduce a four-year sabbatical to allow academics to work in the private sector without losing their university jobs, along with measures that will allow public research teams to participate in private companies.

* The Spanish ministry of health has slashed funding for its top cancer research unit, the National Oncological Research Centre (CNIO), headed by scientist Mariano Barbacid. Instead of the €21.6 million (£13.3 million) earmarked for 2002, the CNIO will receive €14.4 million.

The cuts could affect plans for a structural biology unit to develop tumour-inhibiting drugs and the centre's programme that produces biochips for the Spanish health service at a fraction of the cost of commercially made chips.

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