BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Biotechnology's chances of major European Union research funding moved two steps forward - but one step back - when the European Parliament voted last week on the EUR16 billion (US$14.7 billion) program the EU is planning for 2002-2006.

After a heated and protracted debate, the Parliament gave its backing to much of the proposal. For instance, the text fully endorsed the idea of activities "intended to help Europe exploit, by means of an integrated research effort, breakthroughs achieved in decoding the genomes of living organisms, more particularly for the benefit of public health and citizens and to increase the competitiveness of the European biotechnology industry." And it backed an emphasis on "research aimed at bringing basic knowledge through to the application stage."

But at the same time, the Parliament insisted that the focus should not be limited to biotechnology, but should more explicitly list specific disease categories - at the expense of the role of biotechnology. For instance, the Parliament insisted on adding that "a broader approach, not limited to genomics and other fields of basic research, will be pursued" with regard to supporting research into cancer and other diseases.

A new provision the Parliament added urged that in the medical field, "research will therefore concentrate on translating the new knowledge being created, which is not limited to genomics and other fields of basic research, into applications that improve clinical practice and public health." The objectives the Parliament set include "improved patient-oriented strategies for the prevention and management of disease and for living and aging healthily."

Notably, the Parliament demanded that the all-important funding allocations should be modified. Instead of providing EUR2.2 billion for "genomics and biotechnology for health," it provides EUR2.25 billion for "life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health."

No agreement could be reached on what ethical limits should be set on biotechnology research, because of the wide range of strongly held and often opposing views across Europe. In the end, the issue was sidestepped in the text agreed to by the Parliament. Ethical issues will be covered by a statement that recognizes Parliament's concerns, and in which the European Commission (which will manage the program) accepts that research should not be financed by the program for human cloning for reproductive purposes, or intended "to modify the genetic heritage of human beings which could make such changes heritable," or intended "to create human embryos solely for the purpose of research or for the purpose of stem cell procurement, including by means of somatic cell nuclear transfer."

The Parliament's vision of the research program remains in conflict in many important respects with the initial text proposed by the European Commission, and with the common position already established among research ministers of the EU member states. But extensive consultations between the Parliament, Commission and Council in the run-up to the debate mean that the compromise voted by the Parliament should now allow agreement and a start to the program in early 2003, even if biotechnology and genomics receive less attention in it.

Parliament Debates New Rules On GMOs In Food

The European Parliament's environment committee will debate the proposed new EU rules on traceability and safety of genetically modified organisms in food today, and already trouble is in the air.

Greek Euro-MP Antonios Trakatellis from the center-right European People's Party, said the new rules should fix 1 percent as the permissible level of adventitious admixture, below which labeling and traceability requirements should not apply. But Karin Scheele, from the Austria Socialist Party, is firmly opposed to weakening existing EU rules. Establishing a threshold for nonauthorized GMOs would undermine all European legislation on biosafety, she said, and she is calling for the threshold for adventitious and technically unavoidable contamination by authorized GMOs to be lower, at 0.5 percent. The Parliament as a whole is scheduled to discuss the matter in July, after the environment committee has reached its conclusion.

Web Portal For European Biotech Planned

The European Union is planning to back a European Biotechnology Web Portal, designed to serve the information needs of what it calls "the European biotechnology community."

The idea, which the EU is ready to grant EUR50,000 to support, is to include information on scientific developments, popular articles in the field, partnering, employment advertisements, business and market news, links to other sites and other items that encourage frequent consultation and exchange of information.

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