Where are we heading • Pharmaceutical future explorations with Dag Larsson, Lif


While science is making major achievements in gene therapies, common infections are establishing themselves among healthcare's main challenges. And what is the right path for Swedish pharmaceutical research in an increasingly fierce global competition? Join us for a pharmaceutical future exploration with Dag Larsson, senior expert policy at the Lif industry organisation and member of the Faculty of Pharmacy council.

Dag Larsson, senior expert policy at the Lif industry organization and member of the Faculty of Pharmacy council
Dag Larsson, Lif & Faculty of Pharmacy council

53 years have passed since Sweden's only Faculty of Pharmacy enrolled at Uppsala University. Along the way, both the political arena and the industrial landscape have changed shapes repeatedly. Long gone is the state monopoly on pharmacy operations, as are the many corporate giants that are currently in exile. The question is, Dag Larsson, how is the Swedish pharmaceutical sector doing?

“There is undoubtedly a perceived longing to return to an era of national greatness, but here we must remind ourselves that these companies were essentially regional players in northern Europe. It is also a fact that the Swedish Life Science sector today has more employees than during the time when the dominant pharmaceutical companies were at their largest. In addition, the export of pharmaceuticals still constitutes a significant part of our GDP, so Sweden is also defending its position as a manufacturing country.

Our success is explained by wise government investments and the rich soil of smaller biotech companies now sitting in the driver's seat. This contributes to an important breeding ground for larger companies, and we see, for example, how AstraZeneca continues to invest in its research facility in Gothenburg. With that said, there are of course many tasks to tackle if we are to maintain this positive direction we are moving in.

Among other things, we need to anchor an understanding that the journey from molecule to treatment requires access to several necessary services. If they are not accessible in Sweden, there is a great risk that our companies will move their drug development abroad. For example, the need for research within healthcare has become a topic during the pandemic as very few clinical studies have been conducted at our Swedish clinics, something we must of course change.”

Modern pharmacy is characterised by major technological advances and an almost explosive development of new drugs and therapies. At the same time, international competition for skills and market shares is intensifying. Where should Swedish drug development aim to advance its positions?

SciLifeLab, Uppsala
SciLifeLab, Uppsala

“Swedish Life Science creates good conditions by utilising our national areas of strength. Here we have both far-sighted research funders and high-tech infrastructures. At the same time, the rapid development of new knowledge about disease mechanisms and the accompanying development of treatment interventions hold great opportunities, but competition is fierce.

To reach the absolute frontline requires a certain critical mass, and for a smaller nation like Sweden, the right path forward is likely to build international reputation within certain niches. Today, for example, we achieve results in cell and gene therapies that place us in the European top tier, on the other hand, these are fields where the leading environments in the US and Asia are making progress that is difficult to compete with.”

During Pharmacia's journey from a regional affair to an international conglomerate, adjunct professors were established at the Faculty of Pharmacy. They were employed and paid by industry but teaching and supervising research at the University. They became a bridge between academia and business that has remained central to Swedish pharmacy. What new approaches can ensure and strengthen the Faculty of Pharmacy's contributions to continued success?

SweDeliver, new arena for academia and industry
SweDeliver, new arena for academia and industry

“The exchange between the Faculty of Pharmacy and industry generates great added value, nevertheless I believe that the crop of the faculty's educational assignments can increase. We also see a increasing need for pharmaceutical knowledge in healthcare, here clinical pharmacists and pharmacies can play an even more important role.

Further, if Swedish pharmacy is to continue to translate ideas into pharmaceuticals, access to a competent workforce is required. Today, many are calling for an increased investment in doctoral educations and some companies are already co-financing doctoral positions, but more and targeted resources are likely to be required to turn it into new companies and expanded research and manufacturing.”

To conclude, education, co-operation between academia and industry and international collaborations are the building blocks that can lift Swedish pharmacy to new heights. Here, the Faculty of Pharmacy has a clear task as a unifying force, and has taken a leading position in ENABLE, COMBINE and several other important initiatives that unite Europe's leading players in, among many missions, the hunt for new antibiotics. Nevertheless, no new antibiotics have been developed in 30 years. What is missing?

Uppsala Antibiotic Center
Uppsala Antibiotic Center

“The excessively slow inflow of new antibiotics is undoubtedly an urgent challenge. At the same time, I think we need to put even more emphasis on sustainable use. During our presidency of the EU, Sweden took several important initiatives, but our politicians should be able to create even stronger incentives. Why not reward the companies that choose to have good order in their production through government purchases that become the period's special in pharmacies?

To return to the development of new antibiotics, several solid initiatives are underway, but for a private company to invest large resources in developing a drug that should preferably be kept in stock is not an attractive business model. Nevertheless, the conditions to succeed are not too far away. Just look at the development of covid-19 vaccines that have shown almost unprecedented success:

Small and large companies have initiated successful collaborations. A number of technology platforms have delivered high quality under strong time pressure. Authorities around the world have succeeded in approving processes, agreements and the implementation of vaccinations. For me, it is unequivocal proof that capital, competence and incentives in collaboration can accomplish great things. This has been handled so incredibly well that books will certainly be written about it.”

At the time of writing, almost three quarters of all Swedes over the age of 16 are vaccinated with two doses of covid-19. In parallel, anti-vaccine movements are growing where emotions outweigh established facts. The problem is not unique, both journalists, government staff and several other professions are questioned by groups armed with conspiracy theories and misinformation. How should Swedish pharmacists relate to this challenge?

“During the pandemic, our organisation has – in the traditional media casting of "good" and "bad" – experienced the privilege to maintain the position of "expert". We have used it actively to increase confidence in vaccines and authorities. One of several examples is our Senior medical advisor Johan Brun's weekly chronicles that followed vaccine development and new data. It has been well received, and we have consistently tried to meet the need for well-founded facts.

At the same time, the Internet and social media have opened up completely new possibilities where everyone can choose their own bubble and what voices they listen to. It gives us all - researchers, experts and students - an important task as educators. Basically, it is about conveying the importance of evidence and doing it with perseverance. Of course, there are times when it feels like one long uphill climb, but then we must remember that the absolute majority of the population actually has great faith in science.”

Facts Lif

  • Is the industry organisation for research-based pharmaceutical companies in Sweden.
  • Works for high-quality care and access to new treatments by strengthening the Swedish Life Science sector in collaboration with healthcare actors, politicians, civil servants and patient representatives.

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Dag Larsson, Senior expert policy
Lif The research-based pharmaceutical industry

text: Magnus Alsne, foto: Mikael Wallerstedt, Gunilla Lundström, SciLifeLab

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Last modified: 2022-11-08