All eyes on Europe

Consortia set sights on moving European biomedical research forward

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BARCELONA, Spain—Science policymakers, funders andresearchers recently spent two days here trying to figure out how to launchmajor new research facilities, but progress was at best uneven. Unlike theUnited States, where such facilities are typically funded by one organizationwith deep pockets, in Europe it is necessary to persuade many smaller groups—withdisparate procedures, cultures and funding methods—to cooperate. That's where theEuropean Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), a creation of theEuropean Union, comes in.
In 2006, the ESFRI published a list of 35 proposed projects stemmingfrom a peer-reviewed process that determined they were worthy of pan-Europeaninterest. In 2008, the list grew to 44 projects. The European AdvancedTranslational Research Infrastructure in Medicine (EATRIS) and EU-LIFE are twosuch initiatives.
To assist in advancing new therapies and diagnostics forchronic diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, EATRIS hopes to help bridgethe "translational gap" that currently separates medical research fromapplications in the clinic. EATRIS will operate through a pan-Europeanconsortium of 60 prominent academic institutions, which includes leadingbiomedical translational research centers such as the Istituto Superiore diSanità (ISS) in Italy (known as "the ItalianNIH"), the Commissariat à L'Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA)in France, the Free University Medical Center in the Netherlands, the Instituteof Molecular and Translational Medicine in the Czech Republic, the Universityof Copenhagen in Denmark and "naturally, many more," notes EATRIS' scientificdirector, Dr. Giovanno Migliaccio.
Underscoring the challenges faced by Europeans, Migliacciogoes on to explain: "From the non-scientific side, EATRIS is unique in that allinstitutes operate under a framework agreement encompassing a harmonized intellectualproperty policy, access procedure and quality requirements, with use oftemplate project agreements and other legal documents. This allows us to createsmall, high-quality, purpose-built consortia for clients (whether from BigPharma, national funding bodies or from our internal academic community) veryquickly by using a detailed database of our EATRIS institutions' capabilitiesfor matchmaking, and greatly reduced negotiating time resulting from theexisting framework agreement. These consortia also benefit from the crossoversynergies between platforms, facilitating access to the latest in imaging andbiomarker developments for an optimal development trajectory."
Commenting further on the launch, Migliaccio says, "Theinauguration of EATRIS activities comes after a lengthy preparation. We areconfident that our research infrastructure will have a positive impact on thetranslational medicines field within the European Research Area (ERA) and willdeliver significant and tangible benefits to Europe's citizens." The consortiumwill work to ensure EATRIS becomes a European Research InfrastructureConsortium (ERIC), a legal entity created specifically for setting up jointresearch facilities at a European level.
"Our legal entity is an ERIC," Migliaccio notes, "which canonly be created by member states' governments. Thus our participating countrygovernments are the 'owners,' and it is their research institutions that makeup our consortium."
Meanwhile, last month, the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG),directors and staff from 10 top European research institutes kicked off a newalliance called EU-LIFE that will promote European research. The stated missionof EU-LIFE is "to foster excellence, share knowledge, and influence policies inlife sciences." Partners in EU-LIFE are the "co-leaders," the CRG and VIB(Belgium), the Institut Curie (France), the Netherlands Cancer Institute, theMax Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), Berlin-Buch (Germany),Istituto Europeo di Oncologia (Italy), Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência(Portugal), the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the AustrianAcademy of Sciences (Austria), the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC)(Czech Republic) and the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland, described as"renowned research centers that operate with similar principles of excellence,external reviews, independence, competitiveness, and internationality. Duringdifficult economic times and within a highly competitive international researchlandscape, they believe that they can join forces to better address complexquestions, thereby contributing to pushing European science forward."
"Why are we often not able to attract top students from theU.S.? Why do many of our junior talents leave to other continents and don'treturn?" reflects Luis Serrano, director of the CRG in Spain, and one of theco-founders of this initiative. "There are many excellent research institutesin Europe. By increasing our international visibility through EU-LIFE, we aim toraise awareness for European science. Instead of working independently, we wantto coordinate our efforts to create added value for Europe. We envision, forexample, to agree on common standards for Ph.D. and postdoctoral recruitmentand training programs, and to organize joint scientific events for youngscientists."
If this all seems a bit fuzzy, or at best, conditional,that's probably an accurate assessment. As Migliaccio explains about ERIC, "Theprimary benefit is international recognition and exemption from local value-addedtaxes. Furthermore, we hope that the European Commission will support ERICinfrastructures closely, given that they are a result of the European project. Howthis support will manifest itself, however, is at this point still unclear. Naturally,we hope that funding will be part of it."

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