BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ Research ministers from the 15 European Union member states agreed Monday to a five-year program of support that will make more than $1 billion available for genome and biotechnology research through 2006.

A similar sum also has been agreed to for research into major diseases, which will also offer opportunities for biotechnology research projects.

The program, which covers all areas of EU research, from aviation to materials technology, and has an overall budget of about $17 billion, has been under discussion for nearly a year in the EU institutions, and has been subject to modifications as a result. The European Parliament voted on Nov. 14 for a cut in the funding for genome research. The final form in which the Research Council has given its agreement makes provisions for health care research under a series of different headings.

Under ¿genomics and biotechnology for health,¿ with an overall budget of just over $2 billion, the aim is ¿ according to the Council decision ¿ to help Europe exploit the results of new advances in genetics for health, and ¿to reinforce the competitiveness of the European biotechnology industry.¿ Funding will be focused on projects that help bring basic knowledge through into applications in medicine. The program explicitly recognizes the role of gene technology in fighting against diseases still without adequate treatment options. Underlying the program is the assumption that greater coordination among European researchers will lead to faster and more efficient results.

In particular, the genome subsection of the program will focus on expression of genes, structural genomics, comparative genomics and the genetics of populations, bioinformatics, and multidisciplinary approaches to fundamental biological process through the use of functional genomics.

The subsection dealing with the fight against major diseases will back research (particularly biotechnology-based research) into diabetes, the central nervous system, cardiovascular disease, rare diseases, antibiotic resistance and human aging. And particular provision will be made for combating cancer, with a focus on patient-oriented approaches for diagnosis and treatment. Three diseases the EU describes as ¿particularly linked to poverty¿ ¿ AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis ¿ also will receive priority funding.

The text still has to go through several further stages of finalization in the EU¿s legislative machinery, but the likelihood is that by spring 2002, the first calls for proposals will emerge, seeking bids for research funding in the categories covered by the program.

European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin welcomed the agreement in the Council. He originally had proposed that the EU spending on health research should be entirely dedicated to biotechnology, in pursuit of boosting EU innovation in fundamental science and technology that would benefit the fight against all types of disease. But in the face of overwhelming insistence on earmarking significant sums for specific diseases ¿ principally cancer, diabetes and heart disease ¿ from the European Parliament and EU ministers, Busquin went along with the deal reached.

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