The industrial capital of Hungary's Great Plain, Szeged has a long tradition of excellence. Inaugurated in 1973, the Centre for Biological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences today employs 450 researchers. It was this unique concentration of brainpower – unmatched elsewhere in central Europe – which gave its director, Dénes Dudits, the idea to set up the Szeged Biopolis. The aim is to reap the economic rewards of the centre's know-how, especially in the field of plant biology.
Recognised as a Centre of Excellence by the Commission, the Centre for Biological Research concentrates its research in the fields of development genetics, enzymology and plant biology.
It was back in 1971 that the Hungarian Academy of Sciences first decided to set up a Centre for Biological Research (CBR) to help develop the life sciences, whose potential was already becoming clear. The government at the time was also seeking to decentralise the national research infrastructure which was concentrated in Budapest. Its choice was Szeged, recognised for the quality of its university(1).
This ambitious project gave birth to five institutes (biophysics, biochemistry, enzymology, genetics and plant biology) housed in a huge 13-floor building equipped with all the latest high-tech equipment. The project was financed largely by UNESCO, which brought much needed foreign currency into the country. 'The centre's inauguration, in 1973, was a clear sign of communist Hungary opening up to the other bloc. The international press was quick to pick up on the event,' remembers Arpád Párducz, Director of the Laboratory for Neuronal Adaptation.
Open to the west Unlike their Czech counterparts, Hungarian researchers under the Communist regime were able to travel freely abroad and extend invitations to Western researchers. This early inclusion in the international scientific community enabled the CBR to make many contributions to developments in the biotechnologies from the 1980s onwards, including the first in vitro production of hybrid cells, the first genetically modified lucerne with improved nitrogen fixing abilities (1986), and the first transgenic wheat (1993).
The transition to democracy in 1989 – which briefly saw the centre's founder, the biologist Bruno Straub, hold the post of Prime Minister – brought no slackening of the pace of research. 'The time of the Socialist regime taught us how to survive difficult economic times, finding salvation in international co-operation,' Páducz remarks wryly.
Today, the CBR is continuing to make the most of opportunities within the wider European context: seventeen researchers from various Union countries, headed by the German biologist Kai Simons, sit on its present Scientific Committee. In pursuing this international research, the CBR had no trouble winning the Commission’s Centre of Excellence label. Its main strengths are in the fields of the development of genetics, enzymology and plant biology.
The appliance of science
Centre for Biological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – Szeged. 'The centre's inauguration, in 1973, was a clear signal of communist Hungary opening up to the other bloc.'
After leaving its mark on the biotechnology revolution, the CBR is now planning to move on to the next stage: converting scientific advances into economic innovation. 'Before, all that counted was the quality of the scientific publications. We were very late in exploiting our research,' admits Dudits, the centre's director for the past 18 years. The key element in the mechanism designed to change all this is a specially created limited company. Biopolis Szeged Innovation is owned by the town of Szeged, the CBR, the University of Szeged and a Hungarian venture capital firm.
Biopolis Szeged aims to exploit the intellectual property rights stemming from the work of the town's one thousand biologists – researchers and teachers – and to provide financial support for start-up formed by local researchers. The CBR is not starting from scratch in this field as it has a solid portfolio of patents, some of which – exploited by the Canadian company Chromos – are of vital importance in the field of artificial chromosomes.
'Apart from this technological transfer of existing strengths, Biopolis Szeged also plans to provide the town with an advanced technical platform in functional genomics,' explains its Director. The CBR already has four operational services in this field: proteomics, sequencing, DNA chips and bioinformatics. These tools will be developed for use by the widest range of projects. 'We are already working on cancer diagnosis, the plant selection of pear trees and stag genomics. The annual growth of timber in fact provides an excellent model for studying the metabolism of calcium, with possible applications in the field of osteoporosis,' explains László Puskás, Head of the Laboratory for Functional Genomics.
Breathing life into the city As a specialist in plant resistance to stress, Dudits pays particular attention to agronomic research. He makes no secret of his feelings about the current heated debate on GMOs within the Union, in which he detects certain anti-scientific tendencies: 'People pretend to believe that agriculture is not going to need any more innovations. That is an aberration... Research on genetically modified organisms deserves to be pursued further as it could bring solutions to new problems. In 1993, for example, drought slashed 25% off Hungary's wheat production, of which we are a major exporter. Climatologists warn that we should expect such low rainfall more frequently, to the point where it could become European agriculture's number one problem. Transgenic plants could be the solution. So why ban them from the outset?'
Dudits’ dream is that the life sciences will become the foundation for Szeged's development, with biotech companies taking over from the ageing factories.
(1) One notable figure is Albert Szent-Györgyi, winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1937. He was the only Hungarian Nobel prizewinner to be awarded the distinction for research carried out inside the country. He subsequently went into exile in 1949.
Since 1996, biochemist Péter Csermely, Professor at Budapest's Semmelweiss University, has devised an original system for introducing secondary school students to research. This has enabled more than 7 000 young people to discover the joys, and ...
Péter Csermely, head of the Foundation for Student Researchers and winner of the prize for scientific communication awarded by the European Molecular Biology Organisation.
Since 1996, biochemist Péter Csermely, Professor at Budapest's Semmelweiss University, has devised an original system for introducing secondary school students to research. This has enabled more than 7 000 young people to discover the joys, and the hardships, of laboratory life. No diploma is required to participate in the activities of the Foundation for Student Researchers (FSR). Candidates simply have to answer two questions: Why do you want to carry out research? Why do you think you are better than the others? 'All replies are acceptable,' explains Péter Csermely. 'We are simply seeking to test motivation.'
Motivation is indeed something these young people will need. Once over the hurdle of the initial acceptance, these budding researchers then have to contact one of the 700 Hungarian researchers who have agreed to act as mentor and convince them to agree to take these hopeful apprentices in at their laboratories. Once again, there is no hard and fast rule. The apprentice researchers may just be content to observe or, in their free time, they can actually participate in scientific research. During her summer holidays, one young secondary school student played a part in discovering an asteroid.
Every year, the FSR holds a conference at which the young people present their work and have the opportunity to talk to researchers. 'The FSR began its activities in 1996 and we now have the pleasure of counting among our members former secondary school students who have gone on to become researchers. They discovered science through our action and today they want to share their passion,' notes Csermely, who has just been awarded the prize for scientific communication from the European Molecular Biology Organisation.
The apprentice researchers are also involved in the administration of the FSR and in managing its annual budget. The organisation is supported by the Hungarian Ministry of Education, private sponsors, international organisations such as Unesco and NATO, and the European Commission.