Universiteit Leiden

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From scientific idea to promising new drug

Many pharmaceutical companies no longer have their own lab and are working more closely with universities and start-ups of scientists. Professor of Science-Based Business Simcha Jong is researching how scientific ideas result in new drugs, including at the Leiden Bio Science Park (LBSP).

From hopeful start-ups to established multinationals: in the Leiden Bio Science Park (LBSP) more than a hundred companies are working on the development of new drugs or contributing in other ways to disease prevention and treatment. Jong is researching the role of universities in high-tech parks like the LBSP, and wants to know how companies build up interdisciplinary networks within the university. ‘I’m studying the entire process, from scientific idea to practical product, such as the development of a new drug.

Simcha Jong is researching the role of universities in high-tech parks.

External research labs

Many changes have taken place in the pharmaceutical industry in recent decades, says Jong. ‘There’s a growing trend for large companies to close their own laboratories. Partly because of pressure from shareholders, these companies are focusing more on short-term successes, while research on new drugs is often of a more long-term nature. So pharmaceutical companies are increasingly buying the results from external research labs, such as those of universities.’ This also offers opportunities for scientists who are launching new companies in the LBSP.

Mobilising expertise

Developing a new drug is a highly complex process, explains Jong. It requires expertise in the fields of biochemistry, biophysics, chemistry, structural biology, clinical expertise and bioinformatics. ‘I’m looking at how researchers mobilise all that expertise when they develop a new drug and launch their own company.’ Scientists usually build on their own research and network at the university. For example, they hire former PhD students and postdocs and work with the co-authors of their publications.

The Faculty of Medicine’s education building is also located in the LBSP, with a footbridge to the LUMC.

Fundamental research

The presence of a broad-based university like Leiden University is attractive for a bioscience park, says Jong. A broad-based university has many different kinds of expertise, and individual companies could not develop all of these themselves. Scientists can experiment, for example combining elements of biology with artificial intelligence, even though the commercial value of this is not yet immediately clear. The same is naturally also true for much fundamental research, where it remains to be seen whether it can later be applied in practice.

Park attracts international students

All the companies in the LBSP have links with the University to a varying extent. Many small companies emerge directly from the University and are started by scientists, while large companies like Janssen Biologics and Astellas also work in conjunction with researchers. And many students do internships in the Park and find jobs there after graduating. There’s consequently a lot of cross-pollination between the University and the LBSP, says Jong. ‘In both the research and the education. In turn, the commercial activities in the Park make the University more interesting. Many students come from abroad because this is such a dynamic environment: a strong scientific side and a clear link with practice.’ Students make contacts in the Park, which are also beneficial for the companies. Once a month, students organise a science-meets-business café, where companies, employees, researchers and students meet each other in an informal setting.

It pays to publish research

It pays to be open, is one of the findings revealed by Jong’s research on bioscience parks in Europe and the United States. ‘Companies often want to keep a lot of their work secret, so that competitors can’t see what they’re doing. But what I’ve found is that companies who publish their research are much more effective in developing new products; by being open, they mobilise scientists’ help more quickly.’

Internships

All of Jong’s students do an internship, with more than half in the LBSP. One of those students is Omer Ahmed, who recently graduated in Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences. He did his internship at BaseClear, a company that conducts DNA research in its own laboratory for universities, hospitals and companies like Unilever and Akzo. Ahmed investigated whether BaseClear could also play a role in veterinary medicine. ‘For this, I spoke with vets, livestock farmers and breeders, among others, to find out about their specific needs. DNA research could help with the genetic screening of animals that can produce the healthiest offspring. There seems to be a lot of potential in this sector for BaseClear.’ Ahmed currently has two job applications in the LBSP in progress. ‘I already made a lot of contacts in the Park during my internship and I can really recommend it to all students. There are so many opportunities here and it’s often the decisive factor in whether or not you’re awarded a project or job.’

More than 18,000 people are employed in the LBSP; of these, more than 7,100 work at the LUMC and more than 3,600 at the Faculty of Science, which are also located here. The Park is mostly built on University land and is the home of around 200 companies, nearly all of which have some kind of connection with the University. Several company founders and CEOs obtained their PhD at Leiden or studied here, and the same is also true for many other employees. In addition, many students do an internship here and thus gain research experience. 

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