Scenic view over Södermalm in Stockholm
Photo: Ola Ericson

How Stockholm is keeping global infections at bay

Many challenges face the world today, but few are quite as universal as the threat of infection. Antibiotic resistance is mounting, with the WHO declaring it one of the top 10 global public health threats. Sepsis kills millions of people each year, disabling millions more. And it’s impossible to ignore the death and disruption that accompanies a pandemic.

Over recent years, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stockholm has emerged as a global leader in infection control. Today, there are over 110 companies in the region specialising in this field, with a breadth of expertise spanning from diagnostics and pharmaceuticals to medical devices and digital health.

Stockholm’s success in the sector is, to a great extent, thanks to the city’s already strong profile in life sciences. Four leading universities in the Stockholm-Uppsala region and a world-class research hospital enable close collaboration between laboratory scientists and physicians and present a unique opportunity for clinical development.

Throw Sweden’s Teacher Exemption law - the exemption from employers’ rights to their employees’ patentable inventions - into the mix, and you’ve got a winning formula for success, says Matti Sällberg, biomedical analyst and professor at Karolinska Institutet. “It creates the perfect ecosystem for starting and developing small biotech companies.”

Collaboration is key

Research is the foundation of infection control, and yet even the top universities struggle to afford the equipment and technology necessary to remain at the forefront of the field. Collaborative efforts are therefore essential to provide scientists with access to the services required to pose, let alone answer, new research questions.

SciLifeLab is a state-funded national life science infrastructure operated jointly by the three main Stockholm universities and Uppsala University. It maintains services scientists can subscribe to and provides them with access to the latest equipment and technology. In this way, it enables research that may otherwise be beyond what is possible for an individual researcher, university, or research discipline.

Established in 2010, SciLifeLab is today located in all the major universities in Sweden and maintains a joint research centre in Stockholm where the three local universities develop new methods and make use of SciLifeLab infrastructure and capabilities.

“Sweden is a relatively small country, so it makes sense to coordinate and create national infrastructures that all of the scientists across the country - and all companies for that matter - can make use of,” says Olli Kallioniemi, Director of SciLifeLab. “As everyone knows, these days, infrastructure runs everything. Scientific progress is dependent on access to the latest and greatest equipment, technologies and expertise.”

The SciLifeLab model is a cost-effective way of providing cutting-edge capabilities for the entire life science sector, Olli continues. Moreover, it fuels collaboration, which is a value both SciLifeLab and Stockholm stand for: “It’s a very synergistic relationship between the infrastructure part and the research centre part.” In most cases, SciLifeLab doesn’t create the technologies it makes available. Instead, it collaborates with companies and vendors who develop these technologies and, in return, the scientific teams using them help to refine and validate them.

In 2020, SciLifeLab received the government mandate to set up a Pandemic Laboratory Preparedness capability, as it’s since become known. The mission: to better prepare the country to meet the challenges of future pandemics.

The past 12 months have been almost exclusively dedicated to continuing the work with the new phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. A key aspect is to ensure that all findings are made available to the global scientific community virtually in real-time. “In the case of the next pandemic, this may be even more important. We shouldn’t wait to share data until the papers are out. You need to engage in real-time data sharing when it is a question of helping society with new discoveries.”

The Pandemic Laboratory Preparedness program at SciLifeLab has just started, says Olli, with three more years dedicated to the mandate. “I think there will be a lot of opportunities in terms of creating national pandemic laboratory preparedness because it’s not something academia can do, nor should do, alone. It has to be in close collaboration with healthcare, industry and government authorities, as well as with society at large.”

‘A very positive investment climate’

Svenska Vaccinfabriken is just one of many examples of a company made possible thanks to Sweden’s Teacher Exemption law. Using technology developed at Karolinska Institutet, where three of the four founders are based, the company develops vaccines and immunotherapies for infectious diseases with a high unmet medical need.

Presently, the company is preparing to start its first human trials for a therapeutic vaccine to cure hepatitis B and D. Globally, there are between 300-350 million chronic carriers of hepatitis B. The overwhelming majority of those who require treatment for their infection will need to take antiviral medications for the rest of their lives, and although the drugs slow the progression of the disease, there is no guarantee they won’t develop liver cancer, the end-stage of the disease.

“Our approach is unique when it comes to vaccines since, in the normal case, a vaccine is designed to prevent someone from getting a disease. We are actually trying to cure the ones that are already infected,” says Svenska Vaccinfabriken co-founder Jens Bäck. “This is a huge unmet need as the highest risk of getting liver cancer today is actually due to viral hepatitis.”

Thanks to a “platform way of thinking”, Svenska Vaccinfabriken also has in the pipeline a prophylactic vaccine targeting both the current COVID-19 pandemic and other coronavirus infections. “It’s about how you design the vaccine, how you put the pieces together,” explains Jens. “So, there is the potential for our technology to be used in different infectious disease areas.”

Access to networks like SciLifeLab, Sweden Bio, and ATMP Sweden - the last of which Svenska Vaccinfabriken is part of - are integral to the development of Stockholm’s burgeoning biotechs, says Jens. Collaborations such as these keep costs down and provide resources for small companies as they develop that might otherwise be difficult to access directly.

“Without this access, you’d have to expand and invest in core technology very early, which drives costs. It’s also an advantage to have the proximity of local vendors who have technological expertise in your area of interest. It offers a directness and familiarity of contact that would be otherwise difficult to obtain in complex project work.”

Lastly, says Jens, a favourable investment climate in Stockholm will enable Svenska Vaccinfabriken to take its crucial next steps, as exemplified by the support received from life sciences investment company Karolinska Development. “It will be important for us to be able to move into the first clinical trial in the near future. We are positive to continue our work here in the Stockholm area.”

Matti Sällberg, who is on the board of Svenska Vaccinfabriken, expresses high hopes for both Svenska Vaccinfabriken and the city’s wider biotech scene - reinforced by the recent stamp of approval Sweden has received from the International Vaccine Institute (IVI).

“The IVI has decided that Sweden will be a hub for innovations in the fight against serious infections. In light of all the technologies that are being developed by a multitude of small biotechs, combined with the very positive investment climate, I think that Stockholm can really become a central player in the development of preventative and treatment measures against infectious diseases.”

For more information and to get the full mapping of companies and research specializing in this field, please reach out to Ylva Hultman, Business Development Manager at Invest Stockholm.