EuroBioForum sows the seeds for future life sciences initiatives in Europe

A meeting of researchers, administrators and funding agencies has laid the foundations for a key part of Europe’s future research strategy in the life sciences, the EuroBioForum conference in
Lisbon, Portugal on 6 and 7 December, organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the European Commission (EC), with support from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology
(FCT), aimed to bring together researchers and funders to begin the process of establishing ways to create and finance cross-border partnerships in six areas of the life sciences considered to
be future research priorities.

Dr Wouter Spek explained the rationale behind EuroBioForum and its parent body, EuroBioFund, of which Dr Spek is director. “This is an initiative of ESF and the EC to initiate and facilitate
strategic alliances between public and private sponsors of selected research themes. There is a gap between finance and research and this is one of the main drivers for the establishment of
EuroBioFund. We need to cross-link research and finance networks.”

The Lisbon meeting was the second EuroBioForum meeting to date. And, as acknowledged by Dr John Marks, chief executive of the ESF, “This is an experiment in a way of defining large-scale
science in the life sciences.”

During the conference, the six research consortia presented their pioneering research programmes on topics ranging from using systems biology to combat metabolic syndrome, to developing new
methods to study brain disorders including addiction, depression and schizophrenia.

One consortium led by Dr. Alain Tedgui of INSERM is proposing to establish a European Vascular Biology Institute (EVBI) – a ‘virtual’ organisation harnessing expertise across Europe in all
aspects of vascular biology in an effort to come up with innovative ways to tackle vascular disease.

“We have accumulated a lot of new information about this complex disease and what we need to do is integrate all this knowledge,” Dr. Tedgui said. “Our vision is for a consortium of academic
institutions, research and health non-profit bodies and a public-private partnership. We want to pull together all the excellent groups we have that are distributed between several countries.”

Another consortium is led by Dr. Bart Sangster, a retired public health expert and former Senior Vice-President of Safety and Environmental Assurance at Unilever, and Professor Jos Kleinjans of
Maastricht University in The Netherlands. They have proposed a programme called ASAT – Assuring Safety without Animal Testing. The aim is to take a radical approach towards assessing the risk
to human health of chemicals using new advances in science and technology. In this way it might be possible to drastically reduce the numbers of animals used in toxicology tests – around 1
million each year in the EU. Dr. Sangster remarked that “We think that in the future with huge effort and concerted action we can reduce that number considerably”.
Prof. José Mariano Gago, the Portugese Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education was a keynote speaker at the meeting. He told participants at the conference that it is
crucial that any new initiative for collaborative ventures will not replicate existing alliances.

“Across Europe there are a number of organisations in the life sciences – big laboratories doing collaborative, internationally funded work – and it is important that there is clarification
between the roles of these institutions,” Prof. Gago said. “When people speak about new initiatives in the life sciences, one question that naturally arises is ‘what are the other organisations
that already exist doing in this area?’ From the point of view of governments this is a question that needs to be addressed.”

Dr. Patrik Kolar, head of the Genomics and Systems Biology unit of the European Commission’s Research Directorate, told the meeting that EuroBioForum was an important way to choose the
strategic direction of research in Europe to ensure minimal duplication of effort and reduced fragmentation of research. The EU’s Framework research programme encouraged co-operation, Dr Kolar
said, “and EuroBioForum is an important part of this.”

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