Switzerland has a long history of success in the life sciences. The Alpine nation is the base for several multinational pharmaceutical firms and boasts a network of first rate universities and technical schools. But the fact that Switzerland is small in terms of both geography and population has begun to raise doubts that it can continue to maintain the highest quality of life science research against strong competition from larger nations. The Swiss federal government, along with industrial and academic leaders, has moved to quell those doubts by encouraging extension of a characteristic already ingrained in the Swiss scientific character: collaboration. Government departments, academic centers, industrial research organizations, and private research institutions have started to pool their resources in collaborative research projects designed to ensure that high quality life science research – along with top-notch life scientists – remains in Switzerland.
The collaborative initiatives will plainly take time to produce dividends. But observers are optimistic that they will succeed. “Switzerland still lags behind in the collaboration between universities and industry, with a historical and reciprocal defiance,” says Pierre Spierer, dean of the faculty of science and professor in the department of zoology and animal biology at the University of Geneva. “But the focus of research of both academia and industry is becoming closer with the development of genetics in a broad sense, and the situation is improving rapidly.” Lutz-Peter Berg, a science attaché in the Swiss Embassy in London, agrees. “Like everywhere in Europe, the attitudes within universities are changing, and the recent success for Swiss startup companies tells me that the environment is good for academic-industrial relationships,” he says.
Hanns Möhler, former director of the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Zurich and Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), outlines the problem. “One of the critical points one would have to look at in the long run is whether life science projects in Switzerland are sufficient in size and scope to promote industry in Switzerland,” he explains. As a specific example of the concern he notes that Novartis, the giant pharmaceutical firm based in Basel, recently shifted its focus of R&D to Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Does that mean that Novartis is changing its emphasis away from Switzerland, even though it is also expanding in Basel?” Möhler asks. “The move contributed to an ongoing appraisal of the research landscape with the aim of promoting industrial investment in Switzerland.”
In part, Novartis’s move stemmed from fear that the underlying basis of Swiss life science was in decline. “We in industry, and also people in academia, have a sense that the infrastructure has kind of lagged,” says Paul Herrling, head of corporate research. “At a time when the United States National Institutes of Health trebled its budget, the Swiss National Science Foundation’s budget has stagnated. We’re trying to persuade the government to arrest the stagnation that has gone on too long.”
The government has already made moves to arrest the decline. Starting in 2001, for example, it set up a series of what it calls National Centers of Competence in Research (NCCRs). “The whole philosophy is to put together competence that would otherwise be kept isolated,” says Pierre Magistretti, co-director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s (EPFL’s) Brain Mind Institute. Susan Gasser, director of the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI), outlines the goals of the NCCRs. “They don’t replace the core funding or the core support from the institutes that they involve, but they provide that extra appeal to attract new people and to allow a few individuals to do something beyond what the standard funding would allow,” she says.
A Recipe Book
Möhler’s institute in Zurich illustrates the scope of research supported by the program. “We are involved in the NCCR neuroscience, which translates advances in basic neuroscience into new therapies of disorders of the central nervous system," he says. “We have come up with a whole recipe book of validated targets for drug development that industry can choose from. Several companies have picked it up and are developing agents along those lines. In addition, the NCCR neuroscience projects of Martin Schwab of the Brain Research Institute and Roger Nitsch of the University of Zurich’s Division of Psychiatry Research have entered clinical development for the treatment of spinal cord injury and Alzheimer’s disease, respectively.”
Initial impressions suggest that the centers have started successfully. “They have been very effective at stimulating the life sciences by funding top academic scientists and allowing them to develop collaborative projects,” Spierer says. “They have provided an enormous stimulus in a few selected areas,” adds Isabel Roditi, director of the University of Berne’s Institute of Cell Biology. “They will have long-term impact, as those funded so far have had their second four-year funding approved. Universities are establishing chairs as an indirect result of the process; this will have an impact 20 years from now.”
The concept also promises to change the basic approach to research. “The very good thing about the initiative is that it has added a dimension to the individual principal investigator–based research concept, particularly with collaborations across areas of competence,” says Michel Aguet, director of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research. “The centers not only go across disciplines; they also cover larger areas in the same discipline, going from the laboratory to medical usage, for example.”
The NCCRs haven’t gained universal approval. “My feeling is that it is a very good initiative in principle,” says Hugh MacDonald, associate director of the Lausanne division of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. “But the first round of the NCCRs in biology has tended largely to strengthen preexisting expertise in different institutes, whereas the idea was to develop entirely new areas of research. But it’s an important initiative and a lot of money by Swiss standards has been put into it.”
Systems X and Others
Another stimulus for collaborative research focuses on a form of life science that, by its very nature, involves collaboration. “The Systems X initiative plans a national network on systems biology,” Spierer says. “Its important financing by the pharma industry is the stamp of future success.” The initiative builds on research already under way at the Zurich ETH and the universities of Basel and Zurich. The network could extend in the future to the Lausanne Federal Institute of Technology and other major universities. “It is expected to provide an additional boost and increase the strength of the scientific network between more loosely active groups at different places,” says Klaus Müller, head of science and technology relations at F. Hoffmann-La Roche (Roche).
A different federal organization, the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI), sets out to promote R&D projects that involve public-private partnerships. “Its role is to assure an efficient and result-oriented transfer of knowledge between universities and industries; its objective is to bring science to market,” Nestlé’s Peter van Bladeren explains.
Other large-scale forms of collaboration have begun on a regional basis. These include the Zurich MedNet, which brings together academic research units and businesses in the greater Zurich area; BioAlps, which combines organizations along the lake shore between Geneva and Lausanne; and BioValley, a multinational collaborative that involves universities and companies in northwest Switzerland, southwest Germany, and eastern France.
Another network involves a field that by its nature involves collaboration among disciplines. The Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, a network of institutions in Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich, hosts several databases, including the SWISS-PROT protein database.
Individual firms and universities have set up their own collaborative research enterprises. An initiative in systems biology that pharmaceutical firm Novartis started with the Universities of Basel and Zurich and the Zurich ETH illustrates the value of the collaborative approach. “The goal was to increase the predictability of our drug discovery,” Herrling explains. “Universities were highly interested in this project, as it’s the next step for them to understanding life. Both academic and industrial researchers were very keen on getting started on systems biology pathways. This combination of academic and industrial laboratories helps to keep Switzerland at the leading edge of science in competing with the rest of the world.”
The Nestlé Research Center provides other examples of academic-industry cooperation in life science research. “We collaborate actively with several universities and Swiss federal institutes of technology,” van Bladeren says. “One interesting example is our long-term collaboration with EPFL for the creation and co-financing of a research group in sensory neurosciences. This group is focused on the mechanisms that allow the brain to integrate the various sensorial signals, one of the major challenges that neurobiology faces.”
Roche has its own example. “Collaborations with Swiss academia have always been important to us,” Müller says. “We have recently set up a large-scale collaboration in systems biology that focuses on pancreatic beta cells, suspected of playing a crucial role in the different stages of diabetes, with the University of Zurich and the Zurich ETH. We have collaborations also with the IBM Research Institute on novel miniaturized assays based on IBM’s surface micro/nano-structuring competence. And together with Novartis and the Max Planck Society, we operate a special beamline at the Paul Scherer Institute for structural biology.”
From Academia to Private Institutions
Academic institutions have also started to develop their own large-scale collaborative projects. “An important move at the national level is the collaborative program of the University of Geneva, the University of Lausanne, and the Lausanne ETH,” Geneva’s Spierer says. “As a result, the schools of pharmacy of Geneva and Lausanne were fused and located in Geneva, and Lausanne Federal Institute has absorbed the divisions of chemistry, physics, mathematics, and informatics from the University of Lausanne, and an Institute of Genomics has been created in Lausanne by the three institutions. Achieved last fall, this was the first large restructuring of the landscape of higher education in Switzerland. It is the prototype of future moves, in particular in the Zurich-Basel region.”
Similarly, private research institutions emphasize collaborative projects. “Probably 50 percent of our research is collaborative – maybe 25 percent with Novartis and 25 percent with academia,” FMI’s Gasser says. “We are very open to exchange.”
As those examples show, collaboration is hardly foreign to Swiss academic and industrial institutions. “Most definitely there is a culture of collaboration,” Gasser points out. “Our institute, funded by the Novartis Research Foundation, has funding opportunities specifically earmarked for industry-academic collaborations. We have about 100 graduate students who go back and forth between academia and industry-funded research institutes. If the cross-feeding starts early with the students, you know it will continue.” What is new is the focus on larger-scale collaborations that span several fields, move well along the chain between bench and bedside, and aim for commercial results. “There is already a long tradition of collaboration between universities, research institutes, and industry – for example, in the pharma sector or in engineering,” the Swiss Embassy’s Berg says. “But of course, Swiss research institutions are currently putting a lot of effort into optimizing technology transfer.”
No Firm Can Do It All
From the pharmaceutical industry’s point of view, the increased focus on collaboration marks a recognition that no firm, however large, can undertake all the research it needs to create new drugs. “The basic research we are not doing in-house has to happen in academic labs,” explains Novartis’s Herrling. “The only way to be on top of that and to learn is to collaborate with the academics. You need an interactive team of your own scientists working with them; if you just give them money and come back in five years, you won’t understand what’s happening. So interacting with academia is very much a fundamental aspect of our strategy.”
Cooperative research doesn’t stop at the border. “I have had two long collaborations with the Swiss Tropical Institute in Basel and the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine in Berne,” says Roditi of the Institute of Cell Biology. “I have also collaborated with institutes in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the United States.” FMI integrates from the inside. “Our institute has a very international character. We have very few graduate students from Switzerland; most are foreigners,” Gasser says. “This exchange of people, ideas, and material is true of Switzerland in general; it’s a very open research community. For Switzerland to survive, it has to collaborate. That opened a tradition.”
The developing tradition of extra support for collaborative research strikes a particular chord in translational research, which involves cooperation between scientists in the laboratory and the clinic. “Our branch in Lausanne is totally dedicated to immunology, from very basic research to how the immune system develops through to how it functions,” the Ludwig Institute’s MacDonald explains. “We go from basic research to patients – a nice mixture to have in one organization. We can legitimately say that our research covers the area from bench to bedside, which is unusual for a small institute with fewer than 40 people.”
The Emergence of Translational Medicine
Aguet of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research takes a similar view. “Translational medicine is getting very important,” he says. “We have a good reputation in basic research on cell cycles and cell division. Now we have a major effort in genomic stability, telomerase, and development pathways in cancer. Based on these themes, we wanted to move to medically oriented research. We have moved to cooperate with the local hospital in investigating tumors and cell migration – major aspects of tumor biology that need tumor pathology.”
Like other institutions, Aguet’s institute seeks scientists prepared to work on collaborative projects. “We will be in partnership with the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, so we are hiring more aggressively,” Aguet says. “We are looking for junior and senior people starting now in cancer research. We need to have both very strong basic researchers and researchers with a genuine interest in getting close to the clinic. But it is more difficult to find competent people in the transition field.”
Elsewhere, EPFL’s Brain Mind Institute has openings in cellular neurobiology and neuropharmacology. “And we have strong development in computational modeling for neuroscience, as illustrated by the Blue Brain supercomputer project,” Magistretti says. Roditi’s team at the University of Berne plans soon to recruit Ph.D.s and postdocs with training in cell biology, molecular biology, and biochemistry. In industry, says van Bladeren, “Nestlé is moving from being a ‘respected and trustworthy food company’ to being a ‘respected and trustworthy food, nutrition, health, and wellness company.’” That means recruitment of “young and more senior scientists for all our departments in all major areas, from behavioral sciences to life sciences, and from quality and safety to food technology,” van Bladeren continues.
A Feel for Collaboration
Collaborative research obviously demands scientists with a bent toward cooperation. “Collegiality and communication skills are important, along with great curiosity in research,” Roditi points out. “In addition, you should not have fixed opinions in advance and you should retain the ability to be surprised.” Gasser agrees that “communication skills in any way, shape, or form are essential for our recruits. And above all I look for creativity; I want the bright ideas.”
Heiko Bruhn, deputy head of human resources in Roche’s Basel office, outlines the typical qualities that Swiss industry seeks in its scientific recruits. “The training should be in depth in a given discipline, such as chemistry, biology, pharmacology, or medicine, but broad and cross-disciplinary so that candidates are fit for the challenging multidisciplinary nature of our modern pharmaceutical research,” he says. “Optimally, training should be performed within the contexts of frontier research projects. In the future we will look for people with M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. This ‘double education’ will help researchers to find the right answers in medicine as well as to understand the methodology of science.”
Nationality is relatively unimportant to Swiss recruiters. “We recruit a number of junior scientists, mostly Swiss who have gone abroad for postdocs and have done well,” the Ludwig Institute’s MacDonald says. “We also have a lot of German and French scientists. The big attraction is limited responsibility outside research. They have virtually no teaching responsibilities; that especially attracts young people.” And English speakers who worry about the need to communicate in other languages need fear no more. FMI provides a typical example. “In Switzerland the scientific language is English,” Gasser says. “The whole institute speaks English. I’ve hardly spoken German since I came here from the University of Geneva a year ago.”
Spreading the Word
The Swiss government, meanwhile, continues to promote its support of collaborative research. “It is stepping up its efforts to keep Swiss science globally connected by setting up a network of international science and technology offices and dedicated ‘science consulates’ around the world,” says Berg of the London Embassy. Their objective: “To facilitate international collaboration and mobility.”
A former science editor of Newsweek, Peter Gwynne (email@example.com) covers science and technology from his base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A.