Research in life sciences is on the rise

“Sweden aims to be a leading life sciences nation.” This is one of the statements in Sweden’s National Life Sciences Strategy, which was published by the Government Offices of Sweden last year. So how are we doing?
“I feel that in Sweden, and in Gothenburg, we are well advanced in this area,” says researcher Gisela Brändén.

There has been an increasing focus on research into drugs and people’s health, especially in the last year. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, life sciences was a phrase that was already on the lips of many. There are major investments being made in the field: most recently in October, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation announced that they will invest SEK 3.7 billion in life sciences research over the next twelve years.

Gisela Brändén is one of the researchers at the University of Gothenburg working in the area of life sciences. Her research investigates the structure of proteins in order to understand how they work – knowledge that can be vital in processes such as the development of new drugs.

“If a protein features in a specific disease and you are familiar with its structure, that means you can design a molecule that is perfectly suited to block that protein. That molecule can then be developed into your new drug candidate.”

To study the structure of proteins, she uses a method called serial crystallography. Traditional crystallography involves researchers looking at proteins in a frozen state, meaning that the proteins are resting. However, serial crystallography allows them to see completely new things.

“The advantage of serial crystallography is that we work at room temperature. That means we can trigger a reaction in the protein and capture images while it is working. Then we can combine these images to create a kind of ‘molecular movie’ to allow us to understand how it works,” Gisela Brändén explains.

One of the proteins being studied is cytochrome oxidase, which is part of the cellular respiration process. The protein has been exceptionally well studied – Gisela herself studied it during her own doctoral studies – but it has still not been possible to determine how the chemical reaction that occurs is connected to the work done by the protein.

“With this new method, we hope to analyse in detail how the protein functions and thus understand exactly how the final stage of transforming the energy from the food we eat into a form that can be used by the cell happens.”

 

Serial crystallography is a method developed in the last decade, and there is now a focus on making it easier to use, thereby making it accessible to more researchers. They carry out the preparations in their own lab, but then Gisela Brändén and her research group are completely dependent on synchrotron radiation facilities in order to conduct their experiments. One such facility is the MAX IV Laboratory in Lund, where big investments have been made in the new method and where the Gothenburg research group are involved in developing the technology.

“We are completely reliant on securing beamtime and being able to visit these facilities, so it is just amazing that we are able to make use of MAX IV, which is fairly close and just happens to be one of the best facilities in the world. In particular during the pandemic, when most facilities elsewhere in the world have closed down,” says Gisela Brändén.

Life sciences is an area in which many different actors work together, and where there is tangible collaboration between academia and industry. This is also true for Gisela Brändén. Her own background is from AstraZeneca, and she is currently involved in a research project together with this pharmaceutical company in which they are testing serial crystallography as a method. She considers this partnership to be incredibly valuable, both to the research itself and to her doctoral students, who are gaining insight into how the industry operates.

“Working together with industry is incredibly important, and it is something that I’m trying to increase. I believe that we can inspire each other quite a lot.”

One way of doing this is to have a shared doctoral student – what’s termed a collaborating doctoral student. Gisela Brändén is involved in two such research projects with AstraZeneca and MAX IV. She thinks this is a great way to establish a collaboration.

“If you have a shared doctoral student, then you have to collaborate. Otherwise, you might not bother to take the time.”

Yet collaboration can also pose one of the biggest challenges in life sciences, according to Gisela Brändén. She believes that this may be because many in academia traditionally work more independently and are less accustomed to collaborating in large projects.

“Nevertheless, if we want to be able to carry out these kinds of difficult and expensive experiments, we need to collaborate – both within academia and with industry.”

She notes that another challenge is mobility between academia and industry. Or indeed, the absence thereof. Many people with PhDs go on to work in the private sector, but it’s a one-way mobility. Few people do what Gisela did in moving from industry to a career position in academia.

“It isn’t easy getting back into academia if you haven’t chosen that path from the start, but my experience from AstraZeneca is tremendously useful in my current job.”

Despite the challenges, Gisela Brändén believes the future is bright in the field of life sciences research.

“We are in the midst of an incredibly exciting time in structural biology, and as regards life sciences on the whole I think there are a lot of very positive things happening in Gothenburg. Of course, it could be even better if we collaborated more.”

Life Science

Life sciences is an interdisciplinary branch of science that studies biological life. According to some definitions, it is mostly about medicine and health, while others give it a broader definition.

According to the Swedish government’s National Life Sciences Strategy:
The life sciences sector includes companies, higher education institutions, and public stakeholders at municipal, regional and state level whose activities contribute to promoting human health.  The sector comprises research, higher education and innovation, the development of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and treatments, as well as prevention, implementation and monitoring.

From Sweden’s National Life Sciences Strategy:

“Sweden aims to be a leading life sciences nation. Life sciences contribute to improving health and quality of life of the population, ensuring economic prosperity, advancing the country as a leading knowledge nation and achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

Three voices on...

... life sciences in Sweden. What does Sweden have to offer when it comes to life sciences? What skills will be needed in future, and what impact is the current pandemic having on life sciences research?

Jenni Nordborg
National Coordinator for Life Sciences in Sweden

Life sciences are about better health and competitiveness. Sweden has what it takes to be a leading life sciences nation. We have world-class research, infrastructure and capabilities for innovation, a health care system of a high international standard, and a population that is technologically mature and willing to contribute to medical research and innovation. Sweden’s life sciences industry accounts for at least eight per cent of its net exports.

Data-driven innovative solutions are set to affect developments in health care and in the life sciences industry. To be a leader in the transition to precision medicine, we need high-level expertise in diagnostics and artificial intelligence, as well as knowledge in how to make assistive technology accessible to users and staff in the care sector. These changes are generating a need for new professions that combine medicine and technology.

Beritte Christenson
Senior Director, Early CVRM AstraZeneca

In Sweden, we have the necessary base in the form of good university degrees, an openness to collaboration between academia and pharmaceutical and biotech/medtech companies and the health care sector, and a climate that fosters creativity. For example, we are already well-advanced when it comes to ventures in advanced new therapies such as cell therapy.

In future, we will still need broad competence in chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics and medicine. Other areas where we need to be at the cutting edge are informatics and the omics, data analysis, machine learning, and AI.

The pandemic has put the spotlight on how important life sciences are to society – in terms of both health and the economy. Personally, I hope more students will open their eyes to life sciences and choose to continue their studies in science to advanced levels. There are so many exciting things to work with.

Agneta Holmäng
Dean of Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg

Sweden is an international leader in innovation, research, and research infrastructure and also has a high quality health care sector and a strong business community.

In order for us to remain strong and build a robust life sciences cluster, we need good collaboration between higher education institutions, the public sector and business and industry. This is how we will create attractive environments that will draw the most talented students and researchers. We also need to work more across and between disciplinary boundaries in order to find new solutions to increasingly complex questions in research. This is essential if we want to deploy our results more rapidly for utilisation in the health and care sectors and to develop new treatments.

The current pandemic has hampered clinical research, with many studies being delayed or postponed due to difficulties recruiting participants.

 

Gisela Brändén

Position: Senior Lecturer specialising in structural biology
Age: 45
Family: Husband and three children
Fun fact: She once lived with a Māori family in New Zealand