In a technology park in Tres Cantos, on the outskirts of Madrid, researchers clad head to toe in light blue protective gear perform experiments with adult stem cells. They're hard at work developing compounds to fight diseases at Genetrix, home to the country's only commercial adult stem-cell facility.
In a nearby lab at PharmaMar's research facilities, a faint tang of salt in the air recalls the sea, as the company investigates applications for its first approved cancer-fighting compound, which is derived from marine organisms.
This region is just one of the many around the country in which biotechnology is thriving. According to the Spanish Association of Biotechnology (ASEBIO in Spanish), the sector has flourished in the last five years. By 2007, the latest year for which data is available, the association counted nearly 700 companies engaged in biotechnology, with almost 50 percent growth in funds devoted to research.
Spain has a long tradition of scientific excellence, particularly in the life sciences. In the past decade the country has focused on transforming its research into consumer-focused companies and products. This advance has come about in large part because of a national and local government focus on increasing the country's prominence in biotechnology.
Madrid is home to 75 hospitals, seven of which have more than 1,000 beds, and "the tissue of Madrid health care provides the grounds for clinical trials," according to Jesus Sainz, chair of PromoMadrid. This opportunity for research partnerships, along more than a dozen universities, top-quality health care, and government focus on biotechnology, has led the region to become a magnet for both local and international companies. Almost half of all new Spanish biotechnology startups locate their head offices in the Madrid region, while pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Bristol-Meyers Squibb, to name a few, have set up research facilities. The success of the region, says Sainz, is based on the "connection between the universities and research centers and the biotech and pharmaceutical companies."
Two of the most prominent examples of the country's success are PharmaMar and Genetrix, both located on the outskirts of the city.
Genetrix, today a family of nine biotechnology companies, was spun off from the National Center for Biotechnology in 2001 by researcher Cristina Garmendia. While Garmendia no longer heads the company, she is a powerful example of the cultural changes in Spain: she is now the minister of the newly-created Ministry of Science and Innovation.
Cellerix, the most prominent Genetrix company, investigates the properties of adult stem cells derived from adipose (fat) tissue. The patient's own fat is removed through liposuction, and its stem cells are isolated and cultivated, then used for the patient's therapeutic needs.
The company is in the final stages of clinical trials of use of these adipose-derived stem cells to treat complex perianal fistulas (abnormal tunnels connecting the rectum with the perianal skin). Today, this inflammatory bowel syndrome is only treated with surgery, which is often unsuccessful and can leave the patient incontinent. In contrast, the stem cell treatment controls inflammation and allows the body to heal and close the fistula. In 2007, Cellerix entered an agreement with Axcan Pharma, a pharmaceutical company dedicated to gastroenterology, for the North American rights to license the product.
Cellerix has a second product in clinical trials, designed to treat individuals who suffer from a rare skin disease called epidermolysis bullosa in which minor trauma causes the loss of skin. The company prepares an artificial skin to be used as an implant and help prevent skin deterioration.