BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Promises of more attention to biotechnology were offered last week by one of the European Union's new group of senior officials.

Setting out his view to the European Parliament, recently appointed European Commissioner Ollie Rehn insisted on the need to promote specific high-technology sectors - particularly highlighting pharmaceuticals and biotech.

"We need to understand how our policies affect their competitiveness," he said.

Rehn is one of the 25 senior officials - commissioners - who will direct EU activity during the next five years, beginning in November. "European industry is once again at the top of the political agenda," he added. He made clear his intention to promote a new, market-driven industrial policy, with increased investment in innovation and knowledge.

José Manuel Barroso, the Portuguese prime minister who will become president of the commission in November, is to be Rehn's boss. Barroso has embraced the idea of European policy that will "put growth center stage," to ensure EU progress is "fueled by economic success."

European biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry sources have welcomed the early commitments to boosting the EU climate for business. A leading biotech business figure in Europe told BioWorld International he was hopeful there would be an early end to the hesitations to backing business that the EU has shown over the last decade.

The industry's main lobby group, EuropaBio, has boosted its main board to 21 members, with the appointment of Jack Huttner, vice president of Genencor International; Bernward Garthoff, board member of Bayer CropScience; Tom Saylor, CEO of Arecor of the UK; and Odd Magne R dseth, CEO of Aqua Gen of Norway. Meanwhile, the European Medicines Agency in London also added fresh members to its senior scientific committee to increase in-house expertise in biotech, cell therapy and gene therapy.

But evidence remains, meanwhile, of the uneven regulatory environment that is handicapping European biotechnology. Austria and Greece maintain provisional bans imposed on genetically-modified products, despite a ruling by the European Food Safety Authority that there is no evidence the products constitute a risk to human health or the environment. The products (a genetically modified Spring oilseed rape, Topas 19/2, and three GM-maize varieties, Bt176, MON 810 and T25) already have been authorized for use in the EU, but EU member states are refusing to let them onto the market. A lengthy process of referral and review still will be needed before the member state reluctance can be overturned. Even then there is no guarantee that the ban will be lifted.

The level of background hostility to biotech products remains high. The Green group in the European Parliament has written to the future president of the European Commission asking for more prudence, not more promotion, for biotech products. They opposed the commission's recent decision to authorize the marketing of a genetically modified product after EU ministers reached a stalemate over the decision, and they want the system changed to impose more of what they term "democratic" control - claiming that three-quarters of European citizens and as many as a half of EU member states oppose GMOs.

But caution clouds the horizon for the EU biotech sector, despite a flurry of recent EU announcements of support for biotech research projects. Those include €12 million (US$14 million) over the next five years for the development of medicines derived from genetically modified plants, and €7 million for investigation of treatments based on genetic links in depression.

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