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Successful cooperation between science and industry (II)

The German BioValley Platform is proud of the large number of successful cooperations that have been established between science and industry. In the second article in the series on the platform’s successful cooperations, BioValley presents an encouraging approach for improving the quality of life of severely ill cancer patients and the successful establishment of an industrial biochip platform by the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques.

Marine phospholipids for the treatment of tumours
Prof. Dr. Ulrich Massing, Tumour Biology Centre, Freiburg
Jens Heiser, MEMBRAMED Healthfood GmbH, Hamburg
Every year in Germany, approximately 340,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. Only about 40 per cent of all cancer patients can be cured. The others are diagnosed at such a late stage that cure is unlikely or even impossible. Nevertheless, doctors and scientists can do a lot for these patients: they can relieve pain, prolong life and improve the quality of life. This is the goal of Prof. Dr. Ulrich Massing and his partner Jens Heiser.
Composition of biological membranes (Photo: Karin Bundschuh) © Karin Bundschuh
Cancer patients require higher quantities of phospholipids, the major constituents of biological membranes. These bilayered barriers surround the cells, divide the interior of the cell as well as enable the communication between different cell compartments. It is not only the membranes that have important biological functions, but also the phospholipids that determine many important metabolic processes.
In cancer cells, phospholipids are degraded to a greater extent, which results in the liberation of fatty acids from the membrane phospholipids. Patients lose weight and the cancer cells gain additional energy for their growth. Omega-6 fatty acids are taken up with food. The degradation process also leads to the liberation of arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid which then leads to inflammatory processes and increases pain. This results in the reduction of quality of life for a cancer patient.

Massing hopes to halt this process using “marine phospholipids” which contain few omega-6 acids but large quantities of omega-3 fatty acids which counteract inflammatory reactions. Marine phospholipids occur naturally in salmon or herring roe (fish eggs), for example. In contrast to fish oils that have been on the market for many years, it is hoped that the marine phospholipids will lead to a much quicker uptake of omega-3 fatty acids into the tumour cells, thereby resulting in a reduction of weight loss and pain and increase patients’ quality of life.

It was Massing’s goal to test this hypothesis in a clinical study. However, it was not easy to get hold of the potential therapeutic. Massing found a suitable partner in a Freiburg scientist and entrepreneur, Jens Heiser, and his company Membramed Healthfood which has been marketing phospholipids as food supplements for many years. The Hamburg-based company produced capsules for the trial and the first results were presented at the recent “Science meets Business Day”.

Fifty cancer patients who had already lost a lot of weight and for whom no other effective therapy was available were given three marine phospholipid capsules per day over a period of six weeks. The patients tolerated the phospholipids well. Results are available for five of the patients and reveal encouraging results. “The patients’ appetite and quality of life has improved,” reported Massing in the Freiburg Concert Hall where the “Science meets Business Day” was held. In addition, the patients did not lose further weight, some of them even gained weight and the fatty acid profile in the blood and blood cells was better than prior to treatment. The scientist was particularly optimistic about the increase of the quantity of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in the patients’ metabolism. The industrial partner was equally pleased with the results. Heiser will soon be able to market the phospholipid capsules, which will carry the brand name Vitalipin®, and will refer to the excellent results gained with the capsules in a scientific clinical trial.
Development of a biochip platform for the life sciences industry
Dr. Albrecht Brandenburg, Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques IPM Freiburg
Dr. Ingmar Dorn, Bayer Technology Services (BTS), Leverkusen
Dr. Albrecht Brandenburg and Dr. Ingmar Dorn presented another successful cooperative project involving partners from science and industry. In 2001, Bayer decided to set up a biochip platform for the diagnosis of different diseases. The company had plans to make its innovative methods available to hospitals, GPs practices and external laboratories, enabling on-site analysis and diagnosis/monitoring of cardiac infarction, cancer and other diseases.
Biochip reader (Photo: Dr. Albrecht Brandenburg)
Biochemical know-how was required for the development of the test system, but this alone was not sufficient. Physics expertise was equally important because the devices for the analysis of the new test methods had not yet been developed. The company’s scientists decided to use a method known as planar waveguide technology (PWG), an intelligent method for high sensitivity fluorescence microarray detection. PWG helps detect signs of cardiac infarction for example. However, neither Leverkusen nor Bayer’s American scientists had in-depth experience of this innovative detection method. So they turned to scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques IPM in Freiburg who had already designed a biochip reader for the Freiburg-based company GeneScan in 1998, which enabled the detection of whether food was genetically modified or contaminated with a pathogen such as salmonella.
By choosing the IPM as partner, Bayer hit the bull’s eye. Within only five weeks, the Freiburg scientists came up with a device that used fluorescence to detect the presence of biomarkers (for cardiac infarction for example). Within five years, 15 further projects followed. The systems became gradually less expensive, smaller and simpler to operate. “We were frequently impressed with the professionalism at the IPM and with the robustness of the devices,” said Dorn at the joint talk in Freiburg. The IPM has been working in close cooperation with Bayer since 2005 in a EU-funded project to optimise systems and technologies.

Bayer’s Diagnostics Division was sold to Siemens in 2006 and became part of Siemens' Medical Diagnostics Division. But Bayer still uses the technology platform developed at the IPM for testing food for mildew mycotoxins, which are extremely dangerous for humans and animals. They can lead to symptoms of poisoning, nerve damage, immunological disorders and cancer. The best known mycotoxins are the alkaloids of ergot, the hazardous nature of which was described in the bible and which can spoil entire grain harvests. Mycotoxin contaminations are still a huge problem and it can be assumed that the test will become very popular once rapid tests and biochip reader have reached market maturity.

kb - 04.02.08
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