European research has an undeniable capacity for excellence in the field of the life sciences, as demonstrated by its very active participation in most of the major genome sequencing achievements of the past decade – human, yeast, the bacteria Bacillus subtillus and the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. This high level of scientific quality has been achieved through close co-operation between multinational teams in a spirit which prefigures that of the European Research Area.
The Pasteur model
The present post-genomic era requires a continuation of this cross-border co-operation. It must combine fundamental research with a spirit of innovation able to translate scientific progress into concrete applications, the latter an area in which Europe has always lagged behind the United States.
This aptitude for 'transferring' research results – now known as 'translational research' – is characteristic of the arrival of the knowledge-based economy. It must be based on an increasingly active involvement of scientists in creating new highly specialised companies in which their know-how is a vital asset. New diagnostic tools or treatments based on sometimes very recent breakthroughs in fundamental research are never 'commonplace' innovations in the way everyday consumer products can be. A high level of expertise and an acute sense of economic realities are necessary accompaniments to the extremely sophisticated process involving their development and complex path to the market. In his day, Louis Pasteur was very much the 'researcher-entrepreneur'. It is a model which is more necessary now than ever before in exploiting the vast amount of knowledge which will bring in a new age of medicine.
Clinical research close to the patient
The priority given to European research in the health sector is not limited, however, to advances in genomics and biotechnologies alone. A second approach aims to focus scientific and technological co-operation and coordination on combating a number of diseases by including not only 'upstream' research into the development of new treatments, but also the essential stage of clinical trials, a field in which the Union previously had had no direct intervention. This applies in particular to one of the major public health concerns in Europe today: the fight against cancer. The European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) and its 2 500 doctors from 360 hospitals is particularly important in this area of clinical research in Europe. The clinical phase, which precedes and concludes the final development of any treatment, plays a key role as it is at this stage that the quality of life of the patient must be taken into account.
Special Union support will also go to research on the world's three major communicable diseases – Aids, malaria and tuberculosis – which are causing particular devastation in the poorest developing countries.