Putting innovation into practice

Promoting collaboration between researchers and building bridges between academic research and the business world are not only good ways of promoting innovation, they also harness international excellence and make innovation available to all Europeans.

Type A flu virus. Enlargement x 117 000.Colourised image. © Institut Pasteur
Type A flu virus. Enlargement x 117 000.Colourised image.
© Institut Pasteur
Incubation of nanomedicines with cancerous mouse cells in a culture medium. The goal of this research is to discover a new remedy for cancer. CNRS Photothèque/Hubert Raguet
Incubation of nanomedicines with cancerous mouse cells in a culture medium. The goal of this research is to discover a new remedy for cancer.
CNRS Photothèque/Hubert Raguet

“Bringing the wealth of European science to patients,” is how Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, Director of the Health Directorate at the European Commission’s DG Research, sums up Europe’s ambitions in the field. To achieve this aim, it is promoting collaboration between researchers to develop much larger-scale research efforts than would be possible for individual countries. Such united efforts are much more visible and influential to the boards managing international programmes. One example is the ICG (International Cancer Genome Consortium), which aims to sequence the genomes of cancerous tumour cells.

“Europe was largely absent from human genome sequencing but is now taking its rightful place in the genomics sector,” says Jacques Remacle, Scientific Officer at the European Commission. In early 2010, two European research projects, each with a budget of EUR 10.5 million, will start work on the genetic mapping of breast tumours (BASIS project) and kidney tumours (CAGEKID project). “European programmes enable countries to get organised by providing not only funding but also very advanced technological infrastructure,” he adds.

A public-private partnership

The creation of new medicines is also one of the priorities of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7). “In the early 1990s, 18 out of 20 medicines put on the market came from Europe. By the year 2000, this figure had fallen to 2 out of 20,” says Ruxandra Draghia-Akli ruefully. To boost biomedical innovation in Europe, a novel public-private partnership between the Commission and the pharmaceutical industry was set up in 2007, entitled the Innovative Medicines Imitative (IMI). “The aim of the IMI is not to develop new medicines, but to improve their development,” explains Irène Norstedt, Head of Sector for IMI implementation at the Commission. “To do this, we need to find a method for the early identification of medicines that will fail during the later trial phase.”

The drug-development process, from discovery of the molecule through to final clinical trials, takes an average of 12 years, at a cost of EUR 800 million. The problem is that their potential secondary effects and efficacy are not known until the last stage of this process. “If there is a problem, development has to stop, which represents an enormous waste and a huge disappointment for patients,” she adds. The IMI concept is simple: if pharmaceutical companies agree to share information on their various failures, there will be fewer such failures, saving both time and money. This would allow more medicines to be developed – creating a circle that we all hope will be virtuous.

SMEs support innovation

The Commission has reaffirmed the key role of SMEs beyond their involvement in industry. Indeed, FP7 has a 15% target figure for SME participation in research programmes. “These small businesses are real incubators that enable us to determine whether academic innovations can be exploited on an industrial scale,” says Ruxandra Draghia-Akli.

One successful example is Viennese company AVUR Green Hills Biotechnology, which Europe funded in 2003 to develop a new flu vaccine. The manufacturing process, based on a reverse genetics method, is much faster than traditional methods. This is a significant advantage in the event of a pandemic, when supplies must be made available quickly. Better still, this innovative vaccine is produced from cell cultures, which reduces the risk of allergic reactions, an added benefit compared with the traditional production method using incubated hens’ eggs. This new-generation vaccine is already at the clinical trial stage. The new manufacturing process is expected to be used for producing a quarter of all future vaccines against pandemic influenza type A/H1N1 (swine flu). “The technology, which we have promoted, is now in the hands of industry. We are currently looking for new fields where advanced technological tools could be used,” explains Torbjörn Ingemasson, who heads several technology transfer projects at the Commission.

A Community patent

The issue of promoting innovation once again raises the question of a European Community Patent. Europe’s current system is based on a bundle of national patents, making it much more costly than in the United States or Japan. “One reason why fewer drugs from Europe are coming onto the market is the cost of patents,” says Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, who believes that if we wish to promote innovation, we have to make it easier to implement, largely by adapting the structures guaranteeing intellectual property rights.

Marine Cygler


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A rapid response to influenza

Several programmes have already been implemented to combat flu viruses. They involve creating drugs that target areas of the virus that do not mutate over time. Most seasonal or type A strains of influenza have developed resistance to Tamiflu®, one of the few effective treatments for severe symptoms. According to the European surveillance network VIRGIL (Vigilance against viral resistance), a programme that came to an end a few months ago, 70% of seasonal flu strains displayed resistance to Tamiflu® during the winter of 2008. The aim of the FLUINHIBIT programme, which commenced in January 2008, is to identify substances that inhibit the interaction between two sub-units of an enzyme involved in the replication – and hence multiplication – of the virus genetic material.

Another project, PORTFASTFLU, launched at the same time as FLUINHIBIT, is working to develop and validate a system for the rapid diagnosis of influenza and for monitoring it during a pandemic. The objective is to create a fully automated device capable of identifying, in less than one hour, all known forms of influenza, including H5N1 avian influenza and the 2009 pandemic A/H1N1 swine flu. In the light of very encouraging preliminary results, this system will start being tested in hospitals this December.


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