BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - A plea for effective patent protection for biotechnology products has emerged from a senior level of the European Union.

European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein recently came out with a strong defense of the rights of innovators. Acknowledging public concerns over the ethics of limiting the access to new treatments, Bolkestein nonetheless insisted that without adequate protection, society would suffer.

"We need patent rights," he said last week at an EU conference on innovation in Italy. "Patents provide the incentive to be inventive." He based his argument on the "incredible progress that has been made in the field of biotechnology."

Biotechnology "does not just modify our perception of life; it can also improve our lives," Bolkestein said, who has not, until now, entered into the EU's debate over the merits of biotechnology. "Novel techniques, such as therapeutic cloning, hold a great deal of promise," he said, particularly citing the prospects for treatment of degenerative diseases.

"These techniques raise ethical concerns," he conceded, notably on the availability of research results and medical treatments to society at large. "Many people feel that industrial property rights should not restrict access to new inventions in this sensitive and important area. New techniques should be available to all," he said. "Let me be clear: These people are not wrong. But there is a flip side to the coin. For if there is no industrial property, where is the incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest many millions in research and development? Where will new treatments and medicines come from? Scientific knowledge is not like manna from heaven; it takes many years of hard work to develop new products."

His remarks are seen as timely by European biotechnology executives, as the EU is still in the process of trying to oblige most of its 15 member states to implement the biotechnology patent rules the EU adopted two years ago, and which still have not been brought into effect nationally.

EU Approves Cancer Research Funding

The European Union has approved €100 million for 19 cancer research projects, including new studies of the link between genomics and cancer. The funding, under the EU's new 2002-2006 research program, which is just getting off the ground, is aimed at turning EU advances in cancer research into early stage diagnoses and therapies for patients, the EU said.

"The EU is ready to invest up to €400 million in cancer research over the next four years," said European Commissioner Philippe Busquin, who is responsible for research.

Two of the projects will use oncogenomic technologies to identify cancer genes and study their involvement in cancer progression. Four others will study the molecular pathways involving oxygen starvation or the protein p53, involved in numerous cancers, and will investigate how molecules can be potential targets for new drugs.

Genomics are the key to understanding tumor biology, the EU said, and "many selected projects adopt an approach to the disease that takes genomics as the starting point. Progress in this field has been rapid, and the recent sequencing of the human genome is a major step that should provide crucial information to better understand tumor biology."