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Alsace competitiveness cluster

French Biovalley Forges Ahead

Personalized drugs, mini-invasive surgery, and medical robotics are the three pillars of the Alsatian competitive technology site subsuned under the category of “Therapeutic Innovations.” It is a project with “global scope” and CNRS is heavily involved.


© Alsace Biovalley

The École supérieure de biotechnologie Strasbourg, a partner of the Alsatian competitiveness cluster.


In 2005 the government created 67 competitiveness clusters which bring together businesses and academics in a common, cooperative effort within a geographical area (see CNRS International Magazine N°1). They will share a minimum budget of €1.5 billion for three years. Ten clusters were classified as “World class projects.” Among these, the Alsatian “Therapeutic Innovations” site is dedicated "to finding innovative solutions to the major challenges arising in healthcare over the next 30 years," says Sylvie Debra, the director of Alsace Biovalley, the regional biotechnology promotion agency behind the project. "Our goal is also to boost economic development in the sector.” The site should create 90 new companies and 5000 jobs in the medical biotechnology field over the next ten years. Its governing association is chaired by Professor Jacques Marescaux who, in 2001, performed the first long-distance surgical procedure, operating from New York on a patient in Strasbourg.

The healthcare sector is indeed at a crossroads. The pharmaceutical industry is in urgent need of new therapeutic molecules. Meanwhile, a technological revolution is in the making in the field of surgery and patient care, the upshot of the combined effect of robotics, medical imaging, and new information technologies. Alsace, in particular, has exceptional expertise in all of these sectors thanks to a unique network of researchers, industrialists, and teachers.


a very active region

Though the Alsace region only accounts for 3% of France's population, it ranks second in life sciences in terms of number and prestige of scientific publications, and density of industrial collaborations. More than 300 biotechnology companies are present here, in France's smallest region, accounting for 27,000 jobs. Alsace is home both to several pharmaceutical giants (Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, Octapharma, among others) and to numerous start-ups–offshoots of public research laboratories. Also present are large medical and surgical instrument companies, such as Bruker Biospin, the world leader in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

The region is further invigorated by a very active public research sector. IRCAD,1 the number-one teaching center in the world for mini-invasive surgery (without opening the patient's body), welcomes over 3000 surgeons a year from five continents. Other prestigious organizations include the Institute of Supramolecular Science and Engineering (Isis),2 run by the chemistry Nobel laureate Professor Jean-Marie Lehn, as well as the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Genetics and Biology (IGBMC)3 founded by Professor Chambon, who received the 2004 Lasker prize. At the Louis Pasteur University,4 connections are forged between basic science (chemistry and biology) and healthcare (medicine and pharmacy). With over 18,000 students, it is the only French university that belongs to the League of European Research Universities (LERU), an association of 12 of the most prestigious universities in Europe. In all, over a thousand researchers, including 357 CNRS employees, work in Alsace at the “Therapeutic Innovations” site.

Alsace also benefits from its strategic position in the center of scientific Europe. It hosts several international organizations such as the European Pharmacopeia and the European Diabetes Center. Above all, the region constitutes the French section of Biovalley5 which, along with Germany and Switzerland, forms the only tri-national cluster in the world. Created in 1998, Biovalley is one of the “Top 3” European bioclusters, bringing together 300 companies in the biotechnology and healthcare (representing 40,000 jobs).


drug innovation

In the drugs sector, investments are concentrated around three major therapeutic targets. The first is G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), a family which remains largely unexplored, notably in the treatment of anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. The second target is protein kinases, involved in controlling cellular proliferation and differentiation, deficiencies of which could cause diseases like cancer. The third target is nuclear hormone receptors,  involved in controlling metabolism. Understanding their role in diabetes, obesity, and cancer may spur important advances.

Alsace also wishes to maintain its supremacy in computer-assisted surgery–a booming sector. The objective is to create a GPS-assisted map of a patient's body in real-time by superimposing images of the real operation with synthetic images (from MRIs, scanners, etc.), synchronized with breathing and beating of the heart. The system would allow the physician to “see through” the tissues surrounding the area concerned down to the nearest millimeter, thus avoiding any interference with vital organs.

The people behind the Alsatian “Therapeutic Innovations” site are optimistic. “Our portfolio includes many projects at different stages of the development process,” says Jean-Luc Dimarcq, projects director for the site. “Around ten are at the final phase of evaluation which corresponds to a total cumulative budget of over €50 millions.”


Emmanuel Thévenon

Notes :

1. IRCAD, Institute for Research Against Digestive Tract Cancers, Strasbourg, France).
2. Institut de science et d'ingénierie supramoléculaires (CNRS Institute / Université Louis Pasteur)
3. Institut de génétique et de biologie moléculaire et cellulaire (CNRS Institute / Inserm / Université Louis Pasteur).

Contacts :

Jean-Luc Dimarcq
Projects Director, “Therapeutic Innovations” site, Strasbourg.


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