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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 41 - May 2004   
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EXCELLENCE IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
Title  Medical research bounces back

Cellular biology, neuroscience, molecular biology, developmental biology, pharmacology and teratology… The 88 researchers and engineers at the Institute of Experimental Medicine (IEM) at the Czech Republic’s Academy of Sciences are working in many important fields of biomedicine. Eva Syková, director of this EU centre of excellence in Prague, tells the story.

What was your Institute's experience of the 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989 and the decade which followed?

Eva Syková : "In 2001, an evaluation by a committee of international experts – with not a single Czech among them – gave a positive appraisal of our work. This was further corroboration of our designation the previous year as an EU Centre of Excellence."
Eva Syková : "In 2001, an evaluation by a committee of international experts – with not a single Czech among them – gave a positive appraisal of our work. This was further corroboration of our designation the previous year as an EU Centre of Excellence."
Eva Syková: The IEM was founded by the Academy of Sciences in 1975, in what was then Czechoslovakia. It was the result of the merger of four laboratories of medicine linked to the Saint Charles University which had already acquired an enviable international scientific reputation in plastic surgery, ophthalmology, otolaryngology and also cellular and tissue biology. The histological research by Professors Vrabec and Smetena was particularly notable at that time. But during the 1980s the dynamic was gradually lost. Like all the country's scientific structures, the IEM suffered from international isolation, rigid management which hindered internal dialogue, and all the cumbersome procedures associated with the political system at that time.

The Velvet Revolution produced a welcome shake-up both in the way the Institute operated and also as regards the often excessively diverse directions research was taking. The changes were guided by a desire to rationalise the internal organisation and attract a younger team. Some laboratories were closed and others integrated into more promising fields. I joined the IEM in 1991 to head a new cellular neurophysiology laboratory. Another field of research opened up in genetic eco-toxicology. An open system of competition for obtaining funding from the Academy of Sciences was introduced between projects.

In 1993 we moved to the Academy of Sciences campus, in the south of Prague, where there are four other institutes. The restructuring is now complete. In 2001, an evaluation by a committee of international experts – with not a single Czech among them – gave a positive appraisal of our work. This was further corroboration of our designation the previous year as an EU Centre of Excellence.   

What has this European recognition meant for the IEM?  

Confocal microscope analysis enabling  tridimensional study of cell structures. © IEM laboratory – Prague
Confocal microscope analysis enabling
tridimensional study of cell structures.

© IEM laboratory – Prague
First of all, renown and confirmation of our international position which is based, in particular, on our involvement in six major European contracts. One of these is in the neurosciences, through a consortium studying new molecules against epilepsy. We are working alongside Austrian, French, German and Spanish researchers on this. The five other European projects are looking at the effects of the environment on health, especially the effects of pollution.

The funding linked to the Centre of Excellence label has also enabled us to welcome foreign students – in particular through the Marie Curie fellowships – and organise international conferences. The last meeting of the International Brain Research Organisation was held in Prague, for example, in the summer of 2003. 

How do you see yourself in the context of present developments in biomedical research?  

A lot of hope is being placed in the possibility of developing regenerative medicine based on stem cells. In July 2003, Czech researchers described a new method of obtaining human embryonic stem cell lines. This very effective method has produced six new lines on the basis of embryos obtained by artificial insemination. It complements the work of IEM researchers on the embryonic stem cells of mice – the next step is to exploit these results.

That is why we set up a centre for cell therapy and tissue repair, which employs a staff of 50 and of which I am in charge. It is a flexible structure bringing together the Czech Republic's best laboratories in this field. Their activities range from fundamental research in developmental biology to preclinical trials and the study of biopolymers encapsulating cells for grafting during transplant surgery. Through this centre, I believe we will be very much a part of the present international competition in the field of regenerative medicine. 

    
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