Genetics is an area of scientific research that is opening up a world of new possibilities. For example, genotyping – the process of determining differences in genetic make-up through examining DNA sequences – could lead to new treatments for hereditary diseases. Investment in the Estonian Genome Project at Tartu University should place Estonia at the cutting edge of this research.
Refurbishment of the Estonian Genome Centre at Tartu University (EGCUT) has been carried out through Opengene, a project funded by the FP7 Research Potential programme. Three major objectives were identified initially: the purchase a new genotyping system to increase EGCUT’s research potential and competitiveness; the recruitment of experienced researchers from abroad and organisation of international workshops; and increasing the visibility of EGCUT within Estonia and Europe.
“One of the main aims of the project was to facilitate the exchange of know-how and researchers between EGCUT and the wider European academic community,” explains project coordinator Prof. Andres Metspalu of the University of Tartu. For example, a visit to University of Helsinki (Finland) proved crucial in providing help in bioinformatics, at a time when EGCUT was having difficulty analysing whole genomes. Similarly, a visit to the KORA bio-bank in Munich (Germany) was important in helping to harmonise the Estonian bio-bank design for the follow-up study.
“The success of these visits (and many more!) can be seen in the fact that since then there have been twice as many top-level scientific publications and ten times more EU joint grant applications compared to the project plan,” says Metspalu.
In addition, special workshops on genetics and ethics have helped to increase the centre’s visibility and consolidated scientific expertise by attracting outstanding speakers, researchers and scientists from abroad. Estonian scientists have also been able to visit leading European laboratories to learn about new technologies and to work on cutting-edge scientific problems. “All these visits are investments in our future success,” explains Metspalu. “Knowledge and networking, these are prerequisites for participating in European programmes.”
A global presence
Indeed, Opengene has already transformed Tartu University’s ability to push the boundaries of genome research. “We have been able to attract several excellent scientists back to Estonia because we can now offer competitive salaries and a very good research environment – a large bio-bank and the best genotyping technology,” acknowledges Metspalu. “As a result, we have published about 15 papers in Nature and Nature Genetics, and over 50 papers in other journals since 2010.”
EGCUT has also been invited to participate in many FP7 projects, and has even established close collaboration with the Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute, one of the leading human genomics institutes in the world.
“Our researchers have presented their research results at many international scientific conferences in Europe and elsewhere. For example, Krista Fischer gave an overview of our findings at a recent conference in Montpellier (France), Tõnu Esko presented new data at ESHG conference in Gothenburg, while Liis Leitsalu gave a presentation at an ASHG meeting in Montreal (Canada).” EGCUT’s presence at such conferences has helped to enhance the list of potential partners and collaborators.
EGCUT has become an internationally competitive and recognised research institute, and is looking to consolidate its position as a centre of excellence. By the end of April 2012, a new laboratory building will have been completed, allowing the facility to carry out even more experiments.
“Basic research into human genetics and genomics and functional analysis of the complex mechanisms of the translation of genetic information will be the main topics in coming years,” says Metspalu. “In addition to human diseases, we will work on other traits, like behaviour and cognition, circadian rhythms and physical fitness. We are always open to new directions and our researchers can follow their own scientific instincts in order to fully use their creativity, energy and knowledge.
“In short, thanks to Opengene, we have finally made a breakthrough in human genomics research, and are regarded as one of the genome centres with three essential components: over 51 000 patient samples with medical records, top genomic technology, and analytical expertise in bioinformatics and statistics.”