PhD and Scientific Researcher at Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology
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The Covid-19 crisis has shown that nothing is more than important than our health, our most precious asset. Barcelona has faced this great challenge during the past year with the help of a unique and well-established healthcare and pharmaceutical ecosystem.
The city is home to five public hospitals in which healthcare is closely linked to research dedicated to bringing patients the latest medical advances, while venture capital investment funds play their part in the creation and consolidation of startups in the sector. Pharmaceutical multinationals, many of which were created in Barcelona, generate 20 billion euros a year and 55,000 jobs.
At present, Barcelona is not lacking in the equipment and talent to head the European health rankings, but it does need to raise its game. Skills needed to reach the top include greater ambition to remain at the forefront of research, the creation of a good environment for technology transfer, and increased trust between the public and private sectors, on both a local and international level.
"Barcelona's biotech and digital health start-ups are an emerging sector "
Barcelona, a hub for the healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry
"The Vall d'Hebron Campus is a hospital of the future," says Laia Arnal, VHIR's Business Development Director. Care, research and teaching are fully integrated thanks to the work of more than 9000 professionals who care for more than 1.2 million patients per year in the largest hospital group in the region. Vall d'Hebron has an environment that fosters innovation and continuous improvement, with 68 million euros of its annual budget spent on research alone. The VHIO oncology research center, directed by Dr. Josep Tabernero, is a leader in the fight against cancer, and the hospital is also a leader in neurosciences, pediatric medicine, and rare diseases.
Pioneers in transfusion medicine, the Grifols family founded the Grifols pharmaceutical company in 1909. Today it is the world's leading producer of plasma derivatives and also conducts research into the therapeutic applications of plasma exchange. For example, the AMBAR clinical trial on Alzheimer's, led by Dr. Antoni Paez of the Plasma Protein Replacement Therapies group, has now reached Phase 3.
"Barcelona's biotechnology and digital health startups are an emerging sector," says Gabriel Trindade, journalist at business publication Expansión. In the middle of the first lockdown, for example, Asabys Partners completed a round of 30 million euros for Ona Therapeutics, a spin-off of ICREA and IRB. Clara Campàs, founding partner of the firm, points out that this was made possible thanks to public programs and centers that finance the early stages of research.
Health: topic of the year in 2020
The pandemic has put the health and pharmaceutical sectors in the spotlight. How are they perceived by those living outside the country? In a recent survey of members of the International Council of Barcelona Global, 72.4% of those surveyed believed that the Spanish management of the pandemic had been rated negatively or very negatively by international media, although they also recognized that Barcelona was not a main focus for the international press during the pandemic.
Nevertheless, Barcelona is fully involved both in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine and in new therapies. "All sectors get on board when lives are at stake," says Dr. Paez from Grifols. The Catalan pharmaceutical company Reig-Jofré will manufacture the Janssen (Johnson&Johnson) vaccine worldwide and Grifols is researching new treatments to combat the virus, such as the generation of hyperimmune immunoglobulins. "If you don't have health, everything else is difficult," adds Campàs. In the last 11 months, we have all been able to see this for ourselves.
The future of medicine in Barcelona
It should not be forgotten that the lockdown brought about by the pandemic also accelerated advances in telemedicine. Developments in technology will continue to increase, according to experts: remote patient management is now essential for limiting physical contact, but in the hospitals of the future we will also find smart intensive care units, while diagnostics will take full advantage of artificial intelligence. Ageing, oncology and mental health will be key research areas in the coming years, and ethics in all these areas will need to be debated.
The biotech sector in Barcelona has raised 100 million euros in recent years. But to keep up with European cities like Munich and London or health hubs in Israel and Boston there is still a lot of work to be done. Along with sustainable public funding models, public-private partnerships must be further developed and tax incentives put in place to encourage investment in science. A cultural change is also needed to introduce a more open and ambitious "can do" mentality that would result in initiatives similar to the US "Operation Warp Speed." "We need to invest in our commitment to health," says VHIR's Arnal, "and create an environment in which all doctors aspire to both research and innovate."