Specific Support Action: SYMBIONIC
Working in close co-operation with EUSYSBIO is another specific support action, SYMBIONIC, whose mission since late 2003 has been to integrate scientific activities across Europe in the systems biology of neurons and synapses. In addition, it aims to drive the creation of a complete computational model of a nerve cell – a so-called ‘virtual neuron’.
Such a model could be used to test hypotheses about neuronal behaviour, to simulate cell-to-cell interactions and to screen newly synthesised molecules for their pharmacological properties – thus reducing the need to experiment on animals. It will also be possible to use the virtual model to study how pathological processes first emerging in the neuron go on to ravage the entire organism – as happens in Alzheimer’s (AD) and Parkinson’s diseases, for example.
The SYMBIONIC consortium comprises three partners in Italy and Spain, and is coordinated by Lay Line Genomics, a Rome-based biotechnology SME whose expertise lies in neurodegenerative diseases, particularly AD. In collaboration with the EUSYSBIO project, SYMBIONIC invited leading representatives of the pharmaceutical and biotech industries and academia to a satellite meeting of the ICSB in Heidelberg in 2004, to discuss the role of systems biology in their current and future research strategies. It also contributed to a series of “forward look” meetings organised by the European Science Foundation, by directing the attention of the European systems biology community towards the neuron and neurological diseases.
SYMBIONIC has held a number of training courses for young scientists – notably one on the computational and modelling aspects of neuronal systems biology, and a second on experimental methodologies, data handling and standards, both of which took place in Trieste, Italy. “The organisers received very positive feedback from both the students and teachers, underlining the highly interdisciplinary nature of the scientific programme,” says SYMBIONIC coordinator Ivan Arisi of Lay Line Genomics. “Over 50 students from 20 countries attended the courses, including students from eastern European countries and Cyprus.”
Arisi also points to the benefits for an SME of becoming involved in a European project like SYMBIONIC, saying that his company has been introduced to a network of scientists and biotech, pharmaceutical and information technology SMEs with whom it had previously had no contact, and has developed new expertise in the management of European initiatives as a result. “As a consequence of this, Lay Line Genomics created strategic alliances, gave birth to new research programmes and submitted other proposals in the FP6 calls with some of these partners,” he continues.
"SYMBIONIC image" shows a network of connected neurons and synapses in the cortex of a mouse brain. Courtesy http://svobodalab.cshl.edu/
However, the most significant achievement of SYMBIONIC, in Arisi’s view, is to have won recognition for neuronal systems biology as a discipline in its own right. This recognition will be reflected in the forthcoming publication of a supplement to the journal BioMed Central Neuroscience. This will comprise a collection of reviews by experts in neuronal systems biology, will be edited by SYMBIONIC partners, and will include an introduction written by Nobel laureate and neuroscientist Rita Levi-Montalcini.