Biopharmaceuticals booming in Germany despite GMO controversy

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Modern pharmaceuticals are no longer exclusively produced in a chemicals laboratory, but are often developed using live cells. In Germany, such biopharmaceuticals are being sold and prescribed at an ever increasing rate – despite widespread scepticism over GMOs in Germany. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Drugs manufactured using biotechnology are more popular than ever on the German market. In 2014, biopharmaceuticals made up 22% of the entire pharmaceuticals market, doubling compared to 2006.

Revenue in the industry grew by as much as 7% within one year, according to the industry report “2015 Medical Biotechnology in Germany” produced by the Association of Research-based Pharmaceutical Companies (vfa).

Overall, this amounts to €7.5 billion in biopharmaceuticals revenues in Germany in 2014.

“The increasingly comprehensive treatment possibilities, particularly for patients with autoimmune diseases and cancer” are demonstrated by this growth in revenue, said Frank Mathias, chairman of vfa bio.

In 2014, statutory health insurance in Germany spent €1.8 billion on the five biopharmaceuticals with the highest revenues, alone. As a result, nearly 5% of all expenditures on medication, close to €33 billion, went to high-tech drug treatment.

High demand for diabetes and cancer treatments

Since the 1980s, biotech procedures have been taking over more and more of the pharmaceuticals market.

With the help of genetic technology methods, they make it possible to produce highly specific antibodies. Further, they have created totally new treatment possibilities in oncology and immunology.

Biopharmaceuticals are often used to treat patients with diabetes and other metabolic disorders but also for cancer treatment.

>>Read: Commission says diabetes rates are not improving

While many Germans remain especially critical of “green” biotechnology – genetic optimisation of plants – consumer fears have apparently been dispelled through the achievements of so-called “red” medical biotechnology.

But manufacturing such drugs remains complex and expensive, which explains why a comparatively small number of companies have chosen to specialise in this market.

As a whole, the number of clinical development projects for biopharmaceuticals increased only marginally last year reaching 604.

Germany currently ranks at the top of the list with regard to production using EU-approved biopharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, industry representatives are calling for better support for research and innovation from politicians.

In Europe, access to venture capital for businesses is generally quite difficult, criticised vfa director Siegfrid Throm.

But Mathias showed some optimism, saying around 2025 biopharmaceuticals could make up 30-40% of newly approved medications.

“Many of these are likely to be serums, such as for vaccinations as well as therapeutic vaccines against cancer. Important advancements will be made thanks to technological fields like gene and cell therapy, which are still hardly established today.”

Digitalisation is just getting started

Meanwhile experts see digitalisation as having huge growth potential in the health industry.

“We expect much more cooperation between pharmaceuticals and biotechnology companies as well as health insurance funds for recording, analysing and exchanging data,” Mathias said. In his view, it is clear that big businesses like Google will also have an important role to play in this area.

Jürgen Lücke from the Boston Consulting Group, which analysed the data for the report, said, “in light of the shortage of physicians, especially in rural areas, digitalisation and new apps could help more patients be looked after by fewer physicians.”

Today’s supply is already significant. An analysis recently published by the Techniker Krankenkasse shows that nearly 400,000 health-related apps are already on the market.

“To ensure good quality, such applications should be subject to the medical product law and be tested for quality,” Throm argued. And the issue of data protection has also not been cleared up yet. Here, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is expected to provide much-needed clarity.

Biopharmaceuticals are produced with the help live cells, in a procedure also known as biotechnology. Here, animal cells are often used as well as yeast and bacteria cultures. Plant cells are only rarely used.

In contrast to chemical synthesis, biotechnology allows for the extraction of highly complex agents such as insulin or beta-interferon, which help to treat diabetes or cancer patients.

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