BioWorld International Correspondent

The Netherlands Genomics Initiative, a €189 million basic research program funded by the Dutch government, entered its first external collaboration, with its Canadian counterpart Genome Canada.

The two bodies signed a scientific cooperation agreement - the Framework Agreement to Promote Scientific and Industrial Cooperation between the Netherlands and Canada in the Field of Genomics Research - under which they plan to engage in large-scale joint research.

The agreement covers a broad area of activities, including proteomics, bioinformatics, functional genomics and technology development, as well as research on related ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social issues. It is the first in a series of planned collaborations the Dutch organization aims to enter with similar bodies in Europe and North America, Wouter Spek, manager for innovation and international affairs at the Netherlands Genomics Initiative, told BioWorld International.

The Netherlands Genomics Initiative, which is based in the Hague, formally came into being in January, following an extensive policy consultation process involving government, industry and the research community. It is structured as an independent agency, affiliated with NWO (the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) and charged with the task of developing a world-class genomics capability within the country over the next five years.

Its strategic plan was approved by the Dutch cabinet in July. It is based on four principal research themes: the origins of multifactorial diseases, the functioning of ecosystems, the mechanisms of infectious diseases and the relationship between food and health, including food safety. "We are establishing activities along all our action lines at this point in time," Spek said.

The core of the initiative is the establishment of centers of excellence that would conduct internationally competitive research in key areas. Four candidate centers were selected this year by an international panel, chaired by Leena Peltonen of the University of Helsinki in Finland and UCLA in Los Angeles. Three are now about to commence their activities.

"We are in the final round of negotiations - the detailed setting up of the contracts," Spek said. Anton Berns of the Netherlands Cancer Research Institute in Amsterdam is heading the Cancer Genomics Consortium; Willem Stiekema of Wageningen University is leading the Center for Biosystems Genomics; and Jack Pronk of Delft University of Technology is leading the Kluyver Centre for the Genomics of Industrial Fermentation. The fourth group, the Center for Medical Systems Biology, led by Gert-Jan van Ommen of Leiden University, also has received outline funding approval, subject to certain amendments in its plans.

In addition, the Genomics Initiative will fund horizontal activities to support other research groups, in addition to carrying out original work. "We are working to set up not an institute, but a platform on bioinformatics and on proteomics," Spek said. It will establish a "breeding ground" program, which will support research activities on a timescale longer than that envisaged for the centers of excellence. That will support scientists working at the interface between genomics and other disciplines, such as nanotechnology, materials technology, microsystems technology, informatics and tissue engineering. It also has included a "valorization" plan within its strategy, to exploit the intellectual property generated by the research program, although it will not engage directly in establishing start-up companies. "We have other mechanisms in the Netherlands to finance that," Spek said.