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Redefining Romania

Generating the infrastructure and financing to establish a vital biotech presence

In 1916, Romanian physiologist Nicolae Constantin Paulescu developed a pancreatic extract that was an early version of the life-saving insulin used to treat diabetes. Although he was not among those honored with the 1923 Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin, experts have since contended that Paulescu was robbed. Some say that his accomplishment stayed hidden while World War I ravaged his country. Whatever the reason, it remains clear that the Romanian scientist was not sufficiently recognized for his contributions to the field. And today, as Romania makes significant strides toward building a dynamic biotech industry in the region, its efforts have gone similarly unnoticed by the rest of the world.

In a concerted effort between government agencies, academia and private companies, Romania has grown its biotechnology sector with research centers in Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, Brasov and other cities. But the first dedicated biotechnology cluster in Romania—and southeastern Europe for that matter—is bioROne in Iaşi, located in the northeastern part of the country. 

Researchers at bioROne focus on biomedicine, including bioinformatics and biopharmaceuticals, genetic testing and gene therapy. In the past five years, scientists there have been granted 100 patents, and the center’s cumulative budget during that period was about US$56 million.

Truly a collaborative venture, the cluster was launched by a group representing the country’s leading universities, research centers, industry members and other key organizations. Among the 12 founding partners are the Grigore T. Popa University of Medicine and Pharmacy Iaşi, the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry “Petru Poni” Iaşi, the Institutul Naţional de Cercetare-Dezvoltare pentru Fizică Tehnică Iaşi, the clinical hospitals Spitalul Clinic Judetean de Urgente Sf. Spiridon Iaşi, Spitalul Clinic de Recuperare Iaşi and Institutul Regional de Oncologie Iaşi, SC Antibiotice SA, which is the largest Romanian-owned pharmaceutical company, and the public agencies Institutul de Medicina Legala Iaşi and Directia de Sanatate Publica Neamt Iaşi. In addition, bioROne collaborates with international advisors, including the U.S.-based nonprofit Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology.

Eventually, scientists at bioROne hope to commercialize their laboratory discoveries. In order to develop its own pharmaceutical products, however, the cluster will need far more funding. As it stands its entire annual budget would barely pay for a small fraction of the cost of developing a single drug. Alternatively, bioROne is looking to attract clinical trials or start-ups to the region. To do this, the Romanian government is taking steps to improve its infrastructure, for example, by joining forces with the European Union and the Grigore T. Popa University of Medicine and Pharmacy Iaşi to raise about US$11 million for a research facility in northeastern Romania to be used for preclinical and clinical studies. 

Despite Romania’s underappreciated status in the biotech field, some metrics do attest to its impact. For example, a search of PubMed revealed more than 500 scientific publications in 2014 based on work carried out in Iaşi. To move from research to commercial results, however, Romania must ensure that the world sees its discoveries—and continue to build an industry that will generate more of them.

Illustration by Nicolet Schenck

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