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There are a variety of factors to explain why Medicon Valley, the leading life science cluster in the Nordic region, is home to a vibrant ecosystem of microbiome research and industry. But a key aspect that makes the area so appealing to anyone working in the sector is its unique wealth of biomedical and health data. Microbiome researchers based in the cluster can potentially access a combination of biobanks and cohort studies that are seemingly unmatched throughout the world.
For a relatively new field like microbiome research — with so much left to discover in regards to the connection between disease and microbiota (the microorganisms within the human body, like the gut’s bacteria) — relevant and historical data can be incredibly important. So, large collections of biological samples (like blood, secretions, faeces, and so on) with corresponding patient data, as well as information from long-term studies tracking groups of people that usually have shared characteristics, are invaluable tools that can lead to groundbreaking insights.
And in Medicon Valley, those two tools are in abundance.
“We have benefitted very much from being located in the Medicon Valley ecosystem,” says Jakob Stokholm, Associate Professor at University of Copenhagen and leader of the microbiome group at COPSAC, a clinical research unit in Copenhagen for pediatric asthma research.
For Stokholm, the biobanks and cohort studies unique to the region have made a big difference in his work. “We have been able to perform true translational research here,” he says.
According to Daniel Agardh, adjunct professor at the Diabetes and Celiac Unit of Lund University and a committee chair for the TEDDY Study, the largest ongoing observational study on type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, the data that can be gathered from the area’s biobanks and cohort studies are essential sources for insights on the human microbiome.
“All these studies are unique since samples are collected prior to the onset of the disease from healthy children enrolled from the general population with similar genetic risk,” Agardh explains. “Having access to these biobanks enables research on human exposomic determinants for autoimmune disease like celiac disease.”
Unlike anything available in other regions
Because Medicon Valley stretches from the city of Copenhagen in eastern Denmark to Sweden’s southernmost region of Skåne, researchers working with any of the area’s cohort studies or biobanks (national, regional, or local) can utilise the interconnected civil registration systems of both countries. Thus, it’s possible to link biological samples or data from a study (upon approval by ethical committees) with extensive data registries containing healthcare, genealogy, and socioeconomic information that go back decades.
It's an extraordinary opportunity for research data — times two. Sweden has had personal identification numbers for collecting and organising data and statistics since 1947, and Denmark has had something similar since 1968.
“It is very difficult to perform such studies in other countries instead of in Medicon Valley. The willingness to volunteer for such mother-child cohorts out of altruism is unique to the Danish and Swedish population,” says Jakob Stokholm, leader of the microbiome group at COPSAC and Associate Professor at University of Copenhagen.
And while there are other life science clusters and regions known for their medical research communities throughout the world, hardly any have access to the same high-quality data for research.
For Stokholm, whose group COPSAC has two birth cohort studies and two biobanks that collect and study various microbiomes from babies and mothers, it’s the people that live in the region that make such a difference. “It is very difficult to perform such studies in other countries instead of in Medicon Valley. The willingness to volunteer for such mother-child cohorts out of altruism is unique to the Danish and Swedish population,” he explains.
Another factor is time. As Agardh explains it, doing his work of trying to understand why celiac disease and related autoimmune diseases develop, and how such diseases can be prevented, would have taken much longer to accomplish anywhere else.
“The infrastructure and network to perform longitudinal research and collect biobanks for future research takes years to establish,” he says. “Anything is possible, but I wouldn't change my place now after all these years. Now the fun begins, and it's time to harvest!”
A welcoming ecosystem
But researchers don’t have to already be based in Medicon Valley to take advantage of the biobanks and cohort studies. International organisations are welcome to set up a local office and benefit from them.
“By establishing in the region and being introduced to the ecosystem, new research projects can be started using the wealth of available data that comes from private-public partnerships,” says Camilla Münter, Investment Manager for Life Science at Copenhagen Capacity – Copenhagen's official organisation for investment, promotion and business development.
It’s turning into a busy time for microbiome researchers in Medicon Valley. There are currently over 80 organisations working within the microbiome field in one way or another; 40 of them are companies developing microbiome-based solutions. Over the last 5 years, there have been more than 900 articles about microbiome published in scientific journals with the help of researchers in Medicon Valley, who run more microbiome-related clinical trials than researchers in many other parts of the world.
“We are facing an exciting paradigm shift in relation to the perception of the body's bacteria and viruses,” says Stokholm. “Research in this area has been developing dramatically in recent years, and it is very exciting to be part of this ride.”
COPSAC is a clinical research unit for pediatric asthma research, based in Copenhagen, with the aim of developing evidence-based prevention strategies. It has two birth cohort studies, COPSAC2000 and COPSAC2010, including two biobanks COPSAC2000 biobank (411 children of asthmatic mothers), and COPSAC2010 biobank (736 pregnant women and their 700 children), which involve the collection study of various microbiomes from babies and mothers.
TEDDY (The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young) is a multicentre cohort study looking for the causes of type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM) and the Skåne region is one of its home. Of the 8,667 children participating in the study, 30% are from Skåne. There have been 115 studies published so far, many related to the microbiome. TEDDY started in 2004 and will continue until 2025.
About the Microbiome Signature Project
The Microbiome Signature Project is a three-year project (2019-2022), financed by the EU, and jointly led by Copenhagen Capacity, Invest in Skåne, and Medicon Valley Alliance. It aims to position the greater Copenhagen area as a global hub for research and potential commercialisation in the microbiome field of science, as well as promote collaboration that crosses borders and disciplines. It also works to foster private investments in research and innovation, establish international research facilities, and attract talent to publicly and privately funded research projects.