< Contents ERCIM News No. 60, January 2005
SPECIAL THEME: Biomedical Informatics

Major New Biotech Initiative to Strengthen Sweden's Uppsala Region

by Rhiannon Sanders

With 100 million Swedish crowns (ca. 11 million EUR) from the government's industrial innovation agency (Vinnova) and an equivalent amount from the local biotech industry, the two universities and the municipality, Uppsala BIO is powerful new initiative for promoting the long-term growth of biotechnology in a region that already has an uncommonly good track-record in the field. Close academic/industrial collaboration is a cornerstone of the initiative, and many scientific disciplines - including bioinformatics - are brought together.

What characterizes Biotechnology in the Uppsala Region Today?
The trend was set in the early 1920s when Professor Theodor Svedberg of Uppsala University's Department of Physical Chemistry constructed the world's first ultracentrifuge and used it to show that the molecules of certain pure proteins are all of one size. When Svedberg's research assistant Arne Tiselius obtained his doctor's degree in 1930 with the thesis 'The moving-boundary method of studying the electrophoresis of proteins', this trend was confirmed (Svedberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1926, Tiselius in 1948.). Uppsala was to become a world-leader in developing tools for life science research - tools characterized by close collaboration between university and industry.

Figure 1: Images from the newly established Linnaeus Centre for Bioinformatics' data warehouse showing the visualization of gene function with the help of Gene Ontology.

The patents and product development that led to the 1959 introduction of gel filtration as a technique for separating biomolecules resulted from direct consultations between Tiselius and nearby Pharmacia.

Today, that chromatography business is a vital part of GE Healthcare, the world's biggest biotech/diagnostic company. About 8% of the region's workforce is employed in biotech-related businesses. In addition, more than half of Sweden's biotech firms are located in the 70-kilometer corridor that extends between Uppsala and Stockholm.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Uppsala's shopping malls were invaded by the region's universities, biotech companies and related bodies with information, competitions and hands-on experiments to attract young people to biotechnology.

Leading-Edge University Research
That the region has attained the dominant position it enjoys in biotechnology today is not due to the commercial sector alone, however.

Many of Uppsala's university campuses conduct leading-edge research in topics of great biotech interest; the Biomedical Center (pharmacology, bioinformatics), the Linnaeus Centre for Bioinformatics, the Ångström Laboratory (materials science, MEMS), the Rudbeck Laboratory (molecular genetics and medicine), the University Hospital (cancer, clinical research and trials) and the Genetics Center (plant biology and forest genetics), for example.

Linnaeus Centre for Bioinformatics
The Linnaeus Centre for Bioinformatics (LCB) is a good example of how Uppsala's two universities plan to maintain their position at the forefront of world research.

LCB is a recently-established joint initiative between Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The group aims to carry out cutting-edge research ranging from microbial and mammalian genomics via computational functional genomics to molecular evolution. This unique research platform, which also has access to Sweden's National Supercomputer Center, combines prominent bioinformatic research disciplines such as biology, computer sciences and mathematics.

A Data Warehouse (DWH) for storing, managing and analyzing gene expression data is the latest LCB initiative. The DWH is a microarray-experiment oriented warehouse for collections of expression data, integrated with gene annotation profiling, used to support genomic data mining. Figure 1 shows an example of a typical result.

A Culture of Collaboration
The interdisciplinary cooperation shown by Uppsala's two universities in setting up the LCB is typical for the region's actors on the biotech scene.

Swedish industry and academia have always recognized the importance of working together, and have enjoyed much success in doing so. In Uppsala, the culture of collaboration is probably stronger than in the country as a whole.

Both universities have an open, international attitude, a strong life science history, and world-class biotech research. Industry provides innovative ideas and proven business skills. Put the two together in a tightly-knit region with strong networks and close personal ties and you have created a hotbed of interaction and growth.

Vision - One of the World's Top Five Biotech Regions
With such a strong biotech base today, one might wonder why Uppsala BIO is needed. The answer can be found in the initiative's vision: 'Uppsala is to be one of the world's top five biotech regions. Characterised by frontline biotech research, an outstanding innovation climate and close academic/industrial collaboration. Backed up with seasoned serial entrepreneurs and a full industrial/business infrastructure.' To achieve this aim, all parties involved have agreed on a number of strategic areas.

Attracting more young people to science in general and biotechnology in particular is one challenge. Hence, on 20 November, Uppsala's shopping malls were invaded by the region's universities, biotech companies and related bodies with information, competitions and hands-on experiments for the local population to enjoy.

Another more mainstream approach is Uppsala BIO-X, a cross-disciplinary research effort focused on 'Tools for Life Science'. Uppsala BIO-X supports ambitious, world-class research by making supplementary funding and resources available, primarily for stimulating the formation of multi-disciplinary research teams.

Applications, which should have the potential to generate new opportunities for the life science industry, are welcome.

Uppsala BIO:
The Linnaeus Centre for Bioinformatics:

Please contact:
Rhiannon Sanders, Uppsala University, Sweden