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Overview

Diagnosing the illness

Healthcare currently swallows up almost 10% of all public expenditure in the European Union. New treatments are urgently needed for the major killers – heart disease, stroke and cancer – as well as for the chronic diseases associated with old age, such as arthritis, brittle bones and incontinence.

New drugs are also needed because the problem of resistance, a major cause of failure of classical therapies, is increasing alarmingly. Resistance to chemotherapy is a major obstacle in cancer treatment. Equally, microbes (viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites) are becoming increasingly resistant to antimicrobial agents that have been around for years. Many existing treatments are effective but very expensive, inconvenient to take or cause unpleasant side effects.

Prescribing the right treatment

Possibly the most important source of new medicines will come from knowledge of how living cells function. New genes can be engineered into living organisms, such as bacteria, fungi or plants that then produce pharmaceutical substances. Much current research is focused on understanding and repairing malfunctioning genes and the biological functions they control.

Through its Framework Programmes, the European Union has invested heavily in three basic areas of healthcare research: new treatments, better diagnostic tools, and the means to prevent ill health. The EU fosters co-operative research between academic institutions, private enterprises (including SMEs) and financial investors across Europe – in collaboration with the rest of the world.

In the Fifth Framework Programme (1998-2002), the Quality of Life programme is funding key actions and generic research in the improvement of health. In the next Framework Programme (2002-2006), image2.6 billion has been proposed for research into genomics and biotechnology for health, as well as for safer food and health risk assessment.

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New medicine