BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ ¿Biotechnology has now taken off in Europe, after a slow start,¿ according to the European Commissioner responsible for industry, Erkki Liikanen. If the number of small companies is taken as an indicator of dynamism in this sector, Europe is even ahead of its main competitors, he told an industry meeting in Brussels last week.

In his mostly upbeat remarks, the commissioner noted that many of the requirements for a strong biotechnology industry in Europe are already in place: a first class science base, a large reserve of expertise, and national and regional initiatives to back the industry. He also willingly acknowledged that biotechnology applications are beginning to deliver results that people can see: longer and fuller lives, a cleaner environment, and more sustainable production of food.

But he also highlighted some of the downsides. Europe is still lagging behind its main competitors in terms of companies listed on a stock exchange, he pointed out. And ¿many people have real fears about what biotechnology could lead to.¿ The unanswered questions about the ethical limits to genetic research, or about who should make risk/benefit assessments about medicines or foods, will have to be dealt with ¿through a wide public debate on biotechnology¿s potential and the possible risks involved,¿ Liikanen said. To make Europe a world leader in biotechnology, ¿it is necessary to build public confidence in biotechnology,¿ he said.

Liikanen promised that the Commission¿s strategy paper on life sciences and biotechnology in Europe would be ready before the end of the year, and would, he hoped, ¿help build a more widespread understanding of biotechnology.¿

Sweden, Commission Organizing Conference

Sweden, currently in the rotating chair of EU business, and the European Commission are organizing a conference on ethics and biomedical research in Umea, Sweden, in mid-June. It will review the current state of knowledge, primarily in human health, and discuss the legislative framework for research.

In particular, it will focus on some of the ethical aspects of biotechnology and biomedical research, such as xenotransplantation, the use of banks of human tissue and the use of human stem cells for research. The European Commission says it is backing the conference because the issue of ethics and moral acceptability of this research for the general public may be crucial for the development of the biotechnology sector, and debate has to be promoted.

Researchers Benefit From New Initiative

The European Commission and the EU¿s own investment arm, the European Investment Bank, last week finalized an agreement to cooperate more closely to boost research and technological innovation in Europe by offering financial support to researchers.

The agreement was immediately greeted with acclaim by senior staff of one of the first beneficiaries of this new cooperative approach, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Fotis Kafatos, director general of the laboratory, said research institutions stand to gain from using the instruments of both institutions in a complementary manner. His laboratory will obtain research grants from the European Commission program amounting to EUR19.4 million over three years for research in bioinformatics, and at the same time the EIB has approved a long-term loan for up to EUR29 million for financing its so-called ¿incubator¿ facilities to promote the development of new European start-up biotechnology companies, based on innovations derived from the basic research conducted at EMBL and elsewhere.

Ethics Body Producing Stem Cells Report

The European Union¿s own in-house think tank on biotechnology, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technology, has decided to produce a report covering the use of human stem cells and the patenting of inventions using them. The group, which reports directly to the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and provides advice on all ethical issues related to new technologies, has just had its mandate extended to 2004.

Its 12 members ¿ lawyers, scientists and philosophers ¿ also re-elected French lawyer Noklle Lenoir as their chair.

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