Funding drought threatens drug discovery

  • 2010-06-30
  • By Gunta Kursisa

A EURIKA MOMENT: IOS scientists play a key role in developing Latvia’s high-tech industries.

RIGA - The Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis (IOS),  the main scientific center of Latvia in organic and medicinal chemistry, has sold six of its new drug patents to pharmaceutical companies. Inventions in pharmaceuticals, after the medicine Mildronate’s success story, were seen as one of Latvia’s strong points in positively bringing out the country’s name around the world, and in bringing in income as well. Nowadays, to get funding scientists have to go through a thicket of bureaucracy, and politicians seem to have forgotten about medical research as one of Latvia’s options for success.

“IOS, with their research and patents on new drugs, can compete with similar institutes in Europe,” says Osvalds Pugovics, deputy director of IOS. The institute works on drug discovery. Scientists from the institute invented the cardiovascular medicine Mildronate, which is now the best selling product by Latvian pharmaceutical manufacturer Grindeks. Other pharmaceutical preparations - drugs which enhance memory, treat blood-vessel diseases, anti-skin cancer growth and others - have also come out of the IOS labs.

In 2009, scientists at IOS produced 86 publications in scientific journals and registered 54 patents. This year there have been 17 publications, though no patents yet. Pugovics says “The number of publications should be increased, but this reflects the basic research proportion.” Currently IOS cooperates with 10 foreign partners, in Germany, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.S.

“IOS cooperates mostly with private companies and because of that, sometimes our research results can’t be published,” says Pugovics. Pharmaceuticals is one of Latvia’s strongest points in science, as well as drug studies in the biology faculty at the University of Latvia, and medical studies and projects at the Institute of Solid State Physics and BioMedical Research and Study center. 

IOS was forced to sell its patents because of the lack of finances, says an investigative journalism television broadcast on “Nothing personal” (NP). Without sufficient state funding, IOS sold patents in the early development phases, and the buying companies developed these inventions further. In medicine, the more developed the inventions are, the more income that can be received by the institute. Without sufficient funding, these patents are sold to companies too early in their development, and the institute loses potential income which could be gained if research were continued in IOS.

In 2010 the institute received 799,058 lats (1,141,400 euros) from the state budget, down from 812,232 lats in 2009, according to official data of the IOS. “Now the institute manages on funds which were saved up in the years before the economic crisis. Without this money it would not be possible to develop further studies of Mildronat,” says Ivars Kalvins, director of IOS, in an interview on NP.

Recently the institute concluded an agreement with Grindex about the joint development of two new formulas. Two patents - new drugs - are now in their early development phase. To attract financing for further development the research institute needs to cooperate with private companies, clarifies Pugovics to The Baltic Times.

The success of the research and the institute are based on their ability to cooporate with drug producers and turn patents into commercial products. “I find it absurd. If the research institute holds the patents, they should be used in a practical way, because patents don’t have value if they are not commercialized, so that the customers can use the product of the scientists’ work,” says Pugovics. Patents are invented using IOS technical resouces, but in the European patents register they are put under the IOS director Kalvins’ and other IOS scientists’ names, reported NP. “The Latvian legislation is not clear about who can register patents, so I don’t see anything illegitimate in IOS’ scientists’ names appearing in the Europe patents register as a holders of the patents,” says Pugovics.

Neither the Ministry of the Economy nor the Ministry of Health could say if this practice is in good faith, in how to utilize the property of the state, according to the broadcast. “The state does not invest in the projects which the IOS signs with commercial companies, so this division is absolutely appropriate,” asserts Kalvins.
There seems to be a reluctance and ignorance in interest in the development of science in Latvia from the state’s side. “Now funding for research in medicine goes through a complex bureaucratic apparatus, and it is hard to get to the needed financing,” says Andris Sternbergs, director of Institute of Solid State Physics. “Otherwise, Latvia has the “brains” - the scientists - and the “hands” - the professional engineers,” he says.

Scientific director of the BioMedical Research and Study center Elmars Grens says:  “Hopefully research institutes will attract more financing from European Union funds, but because of the bureaucracy we can also not achieve the desirable result.” In cooperating with Western Europe companies, BioMedical Research and Study center recently developed a unique method for cancer diagnosis. The center uses gene engineering, which is considered to be a perspective method in new medicine discovery.

Events like “Scientists night,” which takes place every year in September, could be one angle which could attract the public’s interest in science and research. “Scientists night” gives an opportunity for all who are interested to take excursions to different laboratories and pharmaceutical companies in Latvia. “Science should be developed and popularized in the broader public, especially with the young, if we don’t want this country to be just a country of lawyers and salesman,” says a representative of IOS.

“Information about science in Latvia is far too minimal for people who are not linked in with science,” says Anete, a coiffeuse. “I would like to know more about inventions and research that is done in Latvia, as I didn’t even know about ‘Scientists night,’ even though I follow the mainstream information flow,” she says. “Society gets information about current politics, the economic crisis and celebrities, but information about science, Latvian scientists’ inventions usually are represented in a complicated way, which even for me is too difficult,” says Inga, a 6th semester student in the Biology faculty at the University of Latvia.

The IOS is the biggest state institute in Latvia in the research sphere. There are now 283 members on the scientific staff. The organization was founded in 1957, when three laboratories were merged of the Science Academy’s institutes which were involved in new drug research.