Biotech Campus to Close?

The state of Berlin's senate is planning to cut the state's health budget, seriously threatening one of Germany's leading molecular medicine research campuses. A severe cash crisis of Berlin's biggest health insurance provider, the AOK, prompted the senate to propose closing down two university hospitals at the research campus Berlin Buch. "The Buch-Model, with its closely interacting basic, clinical, and applied research is unique in Germany," says Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, president of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). "These sudden cuts menace a lighthouse of science."

During the last decade, the research campus just north of Germany's capital achieved an outstanding reputation because of its unique concept, known as the "Buch Triangle." Basic research at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) is conducted in close collaboration with clinical research groups at the two university hospitals and applied research teams in a growing pool of nearby biotech enterprises. Currently a total of 2000 people work at the campus. The research facilities have produced a considerable number of spin-offs: Since 1995, young scientists from the MDC and the clinics founded nine biotech companies.

The campus is an immensely popular location for young biotech companies. "There are a huge number of companies that want to move to the campus," says Gudrun Erzgräber, director of the campus development company. They have had so many requests that the campus is adding two more buildings. "In December 1999, we laid the cornerstone for a new lab building," she says, "and we are now planning for a third lab building, since the new lab building is already completely booked. "

But those plans are now on hold. A 200 million DM (US$100 million) deficiency in AOK's budget for the current fiscal year is forcing the senate to reduce the number of beds at Buch's two university hospitals, the Robert Rößle Klinik and the Franz Volhard Klinik, from 315 to 150. The cuts are expected to save about 60 million DM this year alone.

There are, however, doubts that closing the university hospitals in Buch will cure the AOK's financial troubles. "Only 17% of the hospitals' patients are members of the AOK," says Reiner Dietz, director of the Franz Volhard Klinik. Additionally, most of the hospital's patients are from outside Berlin. "Instead, with closing down these clinics the senate runs the risk of inhibiting the clinical research at a campus where the German government and European Union invested more than 500 million DM between 1992 and 1999."

And even if the cuts do repair the AOK, many fear that they will cause irreparable damage to the region's growing 2 billion DM biotech industry. The campus recently reached the final level of the research ministry's "Inno-Regio" competition, which would be worth about 1 billion DM, Erzgräber estimates. And Regina Reszka, director of the G.O.T. GmbH (limited liability corporation), thinks that "Buch has all possibilities for clinical studies. But closing the clinics would destroy what Germany needs most badly to play in the global league: the combination of scientific competence, highly specialized services, and innovative product development."

Gerhard Wolff, director of the Theragen GmbH Research Campus, puts it even more drastically: "We run clinical studies in the field of gene therapy. The collaboration with the university clinics is essential for us. If they go, we will have to leave, too."

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