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Supporting Europe’s bio-sector abroad Data tal-pubblikazzjoni: 07/07/2011, L-aħħar aġġornament: 29/09/2015

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The European Commission’s presence at the world’s largest biotech and life science event is a sign of how seriously it takes its role of supporting the sector and boosting its innovativeness and global competitiveness.

Europe has long been a world leader in biotechnology and the life sciences. However, Europe’s main global competitors – namely, the United States and Japan – are also making major headway in these vital sectors, as are emerging powers, such as China. In order to avoid the risk of falling behind and so as to meet its citizens’ social and environmental needs, the EU has been investing considerable energy in forging new policies and programmes targeted at stimulating bio-technology and the life sciences, while enhancing cooperation in this field throughout Europe.

Maintaining Europe’s cutting-edge

The life sciences and biotechnology are important planks in the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy for the coming decade. For instance, the flagship initiative ‘An industrial policy for the globalisation era’ (p. 8) recognises biotech as a ‘key enabling technology’.

Since innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology requires not just research but also entrepreneurial application, the EU’s various business-support mechanisms assist enterprises in this field. For example, the Enterprise Europe Network runs a number of ‘sector groups’ of relevance to businesses in this area, including ‘agro-food’, ‘biotech, pharma and cosmetics’, ‘environment’, ‘healthcare’, ‘intelligent energy’ and ‘materials’.

In addition, the EU’s main research funding instrument, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), has a special focus on the knowledge-based bio-economy, with a view to facilitating the sustainable use and production of renewable bio-resources; safeguarding Europeans against the increasing risk of epizootic and zoonotic diseases and food-related disorders; as well as ensuring the sustainability and security of food production.

In a bid to promote environmental sustainability while creating economic opportunity, the EU is also focusing attention on supporting innovation in the ‘lead market’ of ‘bio-based products’, through the innovative use of renewable, biological raw materials. Guided by an action plan of the Lead Market Initiative in the area of bio-based products, efforts in this area focus on novel non-food bio-based products and materials, such as bio-plastics, bio-lubricants, enzymes and pharmaceuticals.

Business and science: hand-in-hand

Given the importance the EU attaches to its life science and biotech sectors, the European Commission works hard to promote the interests – both academic and commercial – of the sector across the globe. Since 2004, the European Commission has been present as an exhibitor at the annual BIO International Convention, the world’s largest event for the biotech industry, attracting some 15 000 leading policy-makers, scientists, entrepreneurs and celebrities from 60 countries. Numerous Member States also have their own national stands at the event.

BIO International also features the BIO Business Forum, which promotes one-on-one partnering between companies, hundreds of sessions covering biotech trends, policy issues and technological innovations, and a large biotechnology exhibition.

The focus of this year’s EU presence, which took place at the end of June in Washington DC, has evolved. In previous years, the European Commission mainly used the event to disseminate information on FP7. In 2011, besides continuing to provide information on the relevant research funding instruments, the Commission’s presence developed its role as a meeting and networking hub for the European biotech industry. In fact, the Commission’s stand was expressly meant as a ‘conviviality space’ and was used by European associations and trade organisations as an informal meeting place.

The European Commission also organised a number of break-out sessions during the Convention. One dealt with the new Innovation Union (page 3), how it will foster innovation and the funding opportunities it presents. Another was an interactive session on diagnostics and personalised medicine which focused on the challenges facing the industry and health systems in developing these cutting-edge treatments while making them affordable.

Other sessions covered transatlantic cooperation on rare diseases, patents in Europe and collaboration between the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the EU’s European Medicines Agency.

Fighting neurodegenerative diseases

A team of EU-funded European researchers, lead by Lund University (Sweden), has developed a new technique for creating rare, non-regenerating brain cells from common-or-garden skin cells. The NEuroStemCell project’s success ignites fresh hope that safe same-patient cell transplants could one day be devised to treat people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.

The team hopes that their research will pave the way to treatments that produce brain cells that a patient needs simply from a skin or hair sample. “This is the big idea in the long run. We hope to be able to do a biopsy on a patient, make dopamine cells, for example, and then transplant them as a treatment for Parkinson's disease,” says Malin Parmar, the lead researcher on the project.

The new technique, which uses mature adult skin cells, also avoids the ethical pitfalls and controversy associated with the use of stem cells, which are usually extracted from embryos and could potentially continue to multiple until they cause a tumour.

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