TGen, Biodesign central to Luxembourg’s $200 million bio investment

June 11, 2008

By hammersmith

Group PhotoThe expertise of Arizona’s bioscience research community has received a resounding international endorsement.

The government of Luxembourg has announced that it is committing $200 million to a trio of interrelated biomedical-research projects, and of the three U.S. entities contracted to help implement the initiative, two are headquartered in Arizona: the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the Partnership for Personalized Medicine. The Partnership unites researchers from TGen and the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University with Nobel Laureate Lee Hartwell, president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Each of the three U.S. organizations involved in the initiative will collaborate with academic, government-supported, and independent research centers in Luxembourg. TGen will work to develop the Integrated BioBank of Luxembourg (IBBL), a centralized human-specimen biorepository. The Partnership will lead Luxembourg Project Lung Cancer, an effort to devise molecular diagnostic tests for early identification of lung cancer. The other organization with which Luxembourg has contracted, the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), will help to create the Center for Systems Biology (CSBL), which will develop new technologies and devices for both genomic sequencing and personalized, molecularly based health-status analysis.

Exactly how much of Luxembourg’s $200 million investment over the next five years will ultimately flow to TGen, Biodesign, and the Partnership is at present unclear. The potential for further international endeavors by the Arizona institutions, though, seems strong.

“It shows we are a location to be reckoned with worldwide,” said Jan Lesher, director of the Arizona Department of Commerce, in the Arizona Republic.

“This is a reminder of the global nature of science and the global nature of economic development,” added Judy Jolley Mohraz, president and CEO of the Maricopa County-based Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, in the Republic.

The overall Luxembourg initiative was developed in consultation with the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). One contributor to Luxembourg establishing ties with TGen and the Partnership was PWC’s previous strategic consultation with the Piper trust. In October 2007, Piper made a grant of $35 million, and the Flinn Foundation another of $10 million, to launch the Partnership.

Driving Luxembourg’s investment is its declaration four years ago that it would work to diversify its economy, with a particular emphasis on building research- and innovation-based industries. Although a strikingly prosperous country, with the highest per-capita gross domestic product in the world, the tiny European nation–which has a slightly smaller population than Tucson and less geographic area than Rhode Island–judged itself too dependent on the continuing health of its banking and financial-services sector.

A year ago, the government settled on a health-technologies plan that ultimately led to the new initiative, explained Jeannot Krecke, Luxembourg’s minister of economy and foreign trade, at a joint announcement June 5 by Luxembourg’s Ministry of the Economy and Foreign Trade, Ministry for Culture, Higher Education and Research and Ministry of Health. In addition to jump-starting an industry likely to generate high-wage jobs and ancillary economic activity, Krecke said, the biomedical-research projects are intended to address one of the government’s pressing fiscal concerns: the rising cost of health care. Luxembourg’s publicly financed healthcare system covers more than 90 percent of costs for residents, giving the government a strong interest in developing preventive-care and early-diagnosis technologies that might yield cost efficiencies.

Luxembourg officials described creation of the IBBL as the cornerstone of the overall initiative, with the infrastructure and services of the BioBank enabling the kind of research projects that the Partnership and ISB will conduct. Following practices common at most biorepositories, tissue and sera specimens donated to the BioBank will be collected, stored, and processed in standardized fashion, with meticulous annotation of each specimen’s associated clinical history–that is, all of the available data related to the donor’s medical history, including but not limited to the progression of disease. That clinical data will then inform the molecular-level analysis researchers perform on samples from those specimens.

But the value of the IBBL, to be founded with TGen’s assistance by Luxembourg’s three public research centers and the University of Luxembourg, will go far beyond its immediate utility as a biorepository, said Jean-Claude Schmit, general director of CRP Sante, the Public Research Center for Health. Perhaps as significant as accumulating specimens will be assembling an array of researchers and technicians to staff the new resource, Dr. Schmit said, experts “in biology and pathology, informatics and information-technology infrastructure, laboratory operations, transportation, legal matters, and ethics.”

TGen’s primary role will be to help develop the IBBL’s technology implementation. At the announcement of the initiative, Dr. Schmit and TGen president and scientific director Jeffrey Trent explained that the IBBL will house technological resources for DNA sequencing and genetic mapping and will operate a facility to produce DNA, RNA, and protein extracts from biospecimen samples for researchers’ use. For more advanced technology in proteomics (the study of protein expression in organisms), the IBBL will partner with international research organizations. Dr. Schmit and Dr. Trent said that TGen will also guide the IBBL’s development of bioinformatics and computation biology capacity, including the design and management of systems for data storage, retrieval, and mining.

Dr. Trent noted that the establishment of the Partnership for Personalized Medicine played a crucial role in attracting the attention of the Luxembourg government.

“If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t have been able to approach them with this project,” he said in the Republic.

Luxembourg Project Lung Cancer, which will target the world’s most prevalent cancer, will be the first “demonstration project” of the Partnership, as well as the first project utilizing the resources of the IBBL. Dr. Hartwell, chair of the Partnership executive committee and the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, has stated that the Partnership will pursue several such demonstration projects that seek to establish molecular diagnostic tests for some of the most high-profile human diseases. Motivating the Partnership’s approach, Dr. Hartwell said at the June 5 announcement in Luxembourg, is the recognition that with rising healthcare costs increasingly burdening nations, early detection of disease is the best avenue for more-effective and less-expensive treatment.

“We thank the foresight and leadership demonstrated by the Luxembourg government,” said George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute. “This model may serve as a driving force of innovation for the European Union as well as U.S. health care.”

Dr. Hartwell and Guy Berchem, a lung-cancer specialist and director of CRP Sante’s hematology and oncology laboratory, said that Luxembourg Project Lung Cancer, launched by the Partnership in concert with the three Ministries, the National Laboratory of Health, and CRP Sante, will identify clinical sites throughout Luxembourg where samples from patients with lung cancer or at high risk for lung cancer can be obtained. These samples will be processed by the IBBL, which will capture patient characteristics, clinical history, and outcomes. Tracking such data is simpler in a country like Luxembourg than it would be in the United States because Luxembourg has a national healthcare system and is building the infrastructure to launch a nationwide system of electronic medical records.

The accumulation of patient samples will provide the material the Partnership and its collaborators in Luxembourg need to develop molecular diagnostic tests for lung cancer. To identify lung-cancer biomarkers–proteins the body produces that indicate the cancer’s presence–the Partnership will employ high-throughput genotyping, gene-expression profiling, and proteomics-production technology based at TGen, and mass-spectrometry and bioinformatics technology based at the Biodesign Institute.

Because proteins indicating physiological condition are found in the bloodstream, once lung-cancer biomarkers are identified and diagnostic tests developed, clinicians should be able to assess disease processes throughout the body without the invasiveness of tissue biopsy. And precise knowledge about a patient’s physiological status and how far disease has progressed, matched with knowledge of the patient’s genetic makeup, should allow for treatment specifically matched to the patient’s condition rather than the traditional one-size-fits-all therapies that have been common to date.

“This is a tremendous first step, and it’s exactly the right kind of project,” said ASU President Michael Crow, noting that further demonstration projects of the Partnership would help Arizona establish itself as a global leader in revolutionizing healthcare.

While the Partnership is implementing Luxembourg Project Lung Cancer, the Institute for Systems Biology will be working with the University of Luxembourg (UL) and the new Center for Systems Biology (CSBL, to be created by ISB and UL with Luxembourg’s three Public Research Centers) on two basic research projects. The first of these projects will focus on developing new methods for genomic analysis and determining individual genome sequences, said ISB co-founder and president Leroy Hood and Rolf Tarrach, UL’s rector (the equivalent of a university president). The second project, Dr. Hood and Dr. Tarrach explained, will focus on developing the technology to analyze patterns of proteins detectable in blood, what ISB describes as blood “fingerprints,” which have the potential to yield precise information about an individual’s physiological condition.

For more information:

TGen and local biotech partner land $200 million from tiny Luxembourg,” Arizona Republic, 06/06/2008

U.S. Institutes to Help Luxembourg Build $200M-Plus Personalized Medicine Program,” GenomeWeb News, 06/06/2008

A Luxembourg ‘Biobank’,” Universite du Luxembourg, 06/05/2008

Press conference remarks, affiliated institutions, Hotel Le Royal, Luxembourg, 06/05/2008

ASU news release, 06/06/2008

PricewaterhouseCoopers USA and Luxembourg news release, 06/06/2008

Grand Duchy of Luxembourg news release, 06/05/2008