Companies and scientists are working together to thwart Covid-19. Switzerland has been living for a year now with government announcements being determined by virus transmission rates. These are extraordinary times for the country, its businesses and its citizens. This crisis is also forcing us to reinvent ourselves, to push the boundaries and to think outside the box. It is inspiring new business models. Since the start of the pandemic, a whole host of innovative ideas supported by Innosuisse have blossomed as part of the fight against Covid-19. Through its innovation projects, and in particular its “Swiss Innovation Force” impulse programme launched in January 2021, the federal agency is providing partners from industry and research with the opportunity to join forces to develop innovative solutions in view of the transformations taking place. Overview of current projects:
Dynamism in medical research
Several organisations and research institutions have already taken advantage of the opportunity and launched various projects. In the medical world, the Vaud-based biotech company Mymetics is currently developing a unique vaccine in collaboration with the University Hospital of Bern. The team is conducting research to create a prophylactic nasal vaccine. Most of the Covid-19 vaccines currently under development or being deployed in vaccination campaigns are administered by intramuscular injection to induce immune defense responses in the blood. According to the scientific teams, however, there is no or only very limited protection in the nasal area, although this is the main point of entry and replication site for the virus. This vaccine will induce immune protection not only in the blood but will also elicit immune defense protection in the nasal and pulmonary mucous membranes and therefore aims to prevent transmission of the virus and infection at a very early stage before it spreads to other organs. Other teams are aiming to improve vaccine efficacy and long-term immunity. For example, MPC Therapeutics is currently collaborating with the University of Lausanne on the development of a memory T-cell booster: a product capable of increasing the number of so-called memory immune cells surviving in the body after infection or vaccination, protecting the patient long-term against new infection. “This technology could improve the efficacy of vaccines, especially for people with weak immune systems, such as the elderly or immunocompromised patients. It could also reduce the dose of vaccine required per person, accelerating the speed of vaccination globally,” remarks Raphaël Martinou, co-founder of MPC Therapeutics.
Different context, different type of innovation: ETH Zurich is developing a medical ventilator called “Breathe” in collaboration with the University Hospital of Zurich and Zurich University of the Arts. This high-tech ventilator with low production costs – set apart by its design and ease-of-use – is intended for intervention in the field and patient transport in low and middle-income countries. The researchers believe the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges faced by health systems worldwide. “This situation has made us realise that it is absolutely crucial to improve access to health services and essential medical equipment,” explains Marianne Schmid Daners, a mechanical engineer at ETH Zurich. “We’re not immune to future health emergencies. This kind of respiratory disease spreads rapidly, creating a race against time which leads to equipment shortages. We are developing a ventilator that is inexpensive, compact and adaptable.”
There were also lots of ideas related to protection. The “Disigel” project seeks to push the boundaries of existing antiseptic gels. In cooperation with Empa, Lumendo is trying to develop a more resistant hand disinfectant. “Ethanol is the most commonly used hand sanitiser. It is inexpensive to produce and highly effective at killing microorganisms in seconds. But on the downside it is highly volatile and evaporates in a few minutes, leaving hands unprotected and susceptible to recontamination. Adequate protection throughout the day would require the permanent application of ethanol, which is impractical and would be detrimental to the skin which it dries out. Our solution provides an alternative because it effectively eliminates microorganisms and provides much longer protection,” explains Andreas Schmocker, CEO of Lumendo. In another project entitled “Remask”, researchers from Empa, EPFL, ETH Zurich and the Spiez Laboratory are working on a solution to revolutionise mask performance using new filtration systems and more durable antiviral and antibacterial materials. “Our goal is to develop reusable surgical and FFP masks to establish sustainable and profitable mask production in Switzerland over the long term,” says Véronique Michaud, associate professor at EPFL.
Detecting viruses in the air to prevent their spread is a major challenge but one which the company Stat Peel is tackling with the help of the CSEM and the Institute of Virology and Immunology, a Federal institute associated with the University of Bern. Together they are developing “AirViMo”, an air sampler used to quantify the number of particles present in the air and to collect them to assess their harmfulness to humans, animals or the environment. “AirViMo can be placed in rooms where there is a risk of Covid-19 transmission – such as waiting rooms, recreation rooms in hospitals, EMS, nursing homes, offices, on public transport and in schools,” explains Rudolf Bieri, CEO of Stat Peel.
Artificial intelligence assists researchers
The “RisKlick” project aims to utilize artificial intelligence methods to gather clinical trial relevant information and develop algorithms for identifying and assessing risks of clinical trials before it is launched. “Such an innovative approach can increase the chances of clinical trials success”, explains Amini Poorya, CEO of RisKlick. The aim is to integrate and consolidate information from various sources, such as scientific literature, clinical trial registries and regulatory and licensing authorities.
This overview shows that science-based innovation is achievable anywhere and that this crisis is proving to be a catalyst for opportunity. Innosuisse encourages innovators and invites them to submit their innovation projects.
Non-exhaustive overview of the innovation projects supported by Innosuisse relating to the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic:
- The company Mymetics that develops the vaccine is collaborating with the Department of Pulmonary Medicine at the University Hospital of Bern for their expertise in the respiratory tract, and will characterize the immune responses induced in the blood and the respiratory tract (nasal and lung tissue) following nasal vaccination with this new formulation. This vaccine can also be stored under stable conditions in the refrigerator at +2 to -8°C or even at controlled room temperature (+15 to +25°C), as opposed to many Covid-19 vaccines that require freezer storage below -15°C or -80°C.
- MPC Therapeutics are currently collaborating with the University of Lausanne to develop a memory T-cell booster: a product capable of increasing the number of memory immune cells surviving in the body after infection or vaccination, protecting the patient long-term against reinfection. The aim is to improve vaccine efficacy, especially for people with weak immune systems, such as the elderly or immunocompromised patients. This memory T-cell booster could also reduce the dose of vaccine required per person, accelerating the speed of vaccination globally and reducing its cost.
- The company Lumendo is collaborating with Empa on the production of “Disigel”, a new hand sanitiser. Frequent handwashing and use of disinfectant are effective means of limiting the transmission of infection, but remain heavily dependent on self-discipline. “Disigel” will keep hands protected for longer
- Together with the University Hospital of Zurich and Zurich University of the Arts, ETH Zurich is developing a low-cost medical ventilator called “Breathe” for use in low and middle-income countries. This ventilator is designed around a resuscitation bag which is standard equipment found in hospitals around the world. Using mechanical and electronic components, such as pressure and flow sensors, the ventilator automates the compression of the resuscitator, allowing controlled patient breathing assistance.
- The company Stat Peel, with the support of the CSEM and the Institute of Virology and Immunology, a Federal institute associated with at the University of Bern, is developing the air sampler “AirViMo”. Air samplers are used to quantify the number of particles in the air and to collect them for further analysis to determine their harmfulness to humans, animals, or the environment. AirViMo is an air sampler specialised in the collection of viruses and other potential pathogens.
- ReMask innovation project by Empa with EPFL Lausanne, ETH Zurich and the Spiez Laboratory – in collaboration with the textile industry, work was carried out on technologies and quality standards for community masks. The medium and long-term goals of the project are the development and production of novel masks and mask parts for the current crisis as well as for upcoming pandemics.
- The company Osmotex, in collaboration with the ZHAW, has developed a self-disinfecting mask with an antiviral and antibacterial effect of 99%. This new type of mask is capable of disinfecting itself thanks to a built-in battery that can be recharged via a USB connection. The product launch is set to begin next spring.
Risklick is working with the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland in Geneva to create a database required by researchers to improve the chances of success in clinical trials. In pandemic situation researchers and decision makers need to access comprehensive information relative to their questions and remain updated in real time. However, the rapid acceleration in new coronavirus and scarcely sourced data makes it difficult for researchers and decision makers to keep up with the flood of information.
In cooperation with the University of Lucerne, SkyCell is developing more efficient and durable insulation of air freight containers to provide effective transport of medicines around the world. Some medicines and vaccines must be stored and transported at a constant temperature to avoid compromising their efficacy. This is the challenge SkyCell is seeking to tackle through this innovation project.
Last modification 05.03.2021