An alliance of five German firms to develop medical imaging technology with government backing

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

Five German companies and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) are to spend almost a billion euros in an effort to strengthen the nation’s international competitiveness in molecular imaging, which will require a large dose of nanotechnology research.

Executives from Siemens, Bayer-Schering Pharma, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma, optical firm Carl Zeiss, and medical instruments company Karl Storz, joined Annette Schavan, Germany’s research minister, on 9 October in Berlin to announce the programme. The firms have pledged to spend 750 million euros of new money over the next 10 years on molecular imaging research, with the ministry chipping in an additional 150 million euros during the next six years.

The goals of the alliance are to develop the knowledge foundation for improving molecular imaging techniques and instruments. This, they say, would enable earlier detection of illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases and help in development of new treatments.

More specifically, Horst Siebold, head of the standardization and technology department of Siemens Medical Solutions, told Chemistry World that the five firms had formed a ’multidisciplinary alliance’ to develop imaging hardware and software, as well as stand-alone software systems to combine images and other clinical information systems for CDS (Clinical Decision Support) and molecular imaging as a tool for accelerating drug development.

Asked why a global giant like Siemens would join such an alliance, Siebold said Siemens sees molecular medicine as key to improving healthcare in coming years. ’The initiative will smooth the way for innovative products and services in healthcare by intensifying the exchange between basic academic research and industrial research and development activities in the area of molecular diagnostics,’ he added.

"The initiative will smooth the way for innovative products and services in healthcare by intensifying the exchange between basic academic research and industrial research" - Horst Siebold

However, Siebold noted that participation in the alliance does not mean the five companies would stick together all the way through to commercialisation.

’The collaboration is planned for pre-competitive developments, cooperation and alignment in developing prototypes etc.,’ he said. ’However, if [co-developing certain products] makes sense, they will be decided on bilaterally on a case-by-case decision.’

Siemens’ current competitors in molecular diagnostics include GE and Philips in hardware and specialized small companies in the field of software, says Siebold.

Viola Klamroth, a spokeswoman for the BMBF, told Chemistry World that the five firms initiated the project last summer in a joint letter to Schavan. As Germany already is strong in the field of medical technology, third only to the US and Japan, Schavan was eager to support the proposal. ’900 million euros will be a huge impetus to the field,’ Klamroth said.

"900 million euros will be a huge impetus to the field" - Viola Klamroth

The 150 million euros from the ministry will be used to fund only research projects that include collaboration between at least one firm and one academic institution, she said. The ministry hopes the program will encourage smaller medical technology companies to focus on the field and apply for funding, she added.

The initiative will be overseen by the ministry’s head of nanomaterial/new materials projects, because of the importance of developing new nano-based contrasting agents for improved molecular imaging, she said. However, within the ministry the alliance also falls under its optical (microscopes) and information technology (software) programmes.

Molecular imaging hardware models most likely to be explored for improvement would include magnetic resonance, combination positron emission tomography and computed tomography (PET/CT), and optical systems, she said.