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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 50 - August 2006   
 Sound in body and mind...
 "There is plenty to communicate…"
 Science as a sign of the times
 Research and the philanthropists
 Fotis Kafatos: the model mentor
 Movement on the biofuel front
 What’s good for the goose…
 Deviance, the environment and genetics
 Alternative visions of the Euro-Mediterranean
 HD69830 and its three Neptunes

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IN BRIEF Printable version

The Spitzberg plant survival kit

The Spitzberg plant survival kit

Seeds representing 3 million varieties of plant have just been deposited in a very special safe. They will be stored at a temperature of -20°C in a space hollowed out in a mountain on Spitzberg, a frozen island belonging to Norway. The aim is to “provide an ultimate safety net to conserve a capacity to feed the planet in the event of a disaster”, explains Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. This safe deposit system has a refrigerating device to lower the temperature of the mountain that sometimes reaches -3°C. The plant databank will include seed from developing countries as a priority, storing them under optimal conditions. Industrialised countries and private seed producers already have reserves of this kind – thanks to which it was possible to reintroduce local varieties of beans in Africa following the wars in Rwanda and Uganda.

Increased confidence in biotechnology

A scientist
The Eurobarometer survey entitled Europeans and biotechnology in 2005, published in June 2006, is the sixth survey carried out on this subject since 1991 and covers the 25 EU Member States (an average of 1 000 people were surveyed per country). More than half of the respondents believe that biotechnology can improve their quality of life, principally in the field of health or through industrial innovation. Their doubts are markedly greater when it comes to farming and food. Overall, the optimism is close to that found in 1991, prior to the quite significant fall in 1999.

In the medical field, the development of nanotechnologies, pharmacogenetics and gene therapy is viewed positively and deemed to be morally acceptable. Research on stem cells taken from the umbilical cord is supported by 65% of the Europeans questioned and research using embryonic stem cells by 59% – but on condition that these technologies are subject to strict controls and regulations. Industrial innovations, such as biofuels and bioplastics, meet with broad approval, as does pharmaco-molecular agriculture that uses genetically modified plants for the manufacture of pharmaceutical products. When it comes to food, 58% of respondents believe that products containing GMOs should not be encouraged. 

Nearly three-quarters expressed their confidence in researchers employed at universities compared with 64% for scientists working in industry. Some 74% considered the European Union to be the most reliable regulator of biotechnology, thus more so than individual countries.

The report’s authors believe that a comparison of the attitudes of Europeans with those of North Americans (the United States and Canada) belies to claims that the former are more opposed to new technologies than the latter.

Cautious moves towards the EIT

Janez Potočnik
Janez Potočnik
This is a key element proposed, just over a year ago, by the Barroso Commission and ratified by the European Council as part of the Lisbon Strategy. The plan is to create, at the EU level, a new European Institute of Technology (EIT) that would bring together the very best centres of excellence, both public and private. This would effectively place entrepreneurial innovation at the heart of the knowledge triangle it forms with education and research and break with the conventional ‘end of pipe’ technology transfer.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States is very much a model of such a three-dimensional marriage and the creativity it generates. But the transposition of this model, which is much envied in Europe, has met with some quite critical reservations on the part of the scientific community – even if the priority of strengthening innovation performance currently enjoys wide support in Europe. These criticisms were expressed during the consultations that the Commission conducted throughout 2005.

Ján Figel'
Ján Figel'
While an autonomous European Research Council is now on the verge of becoming a much-welcomed reality under the Seventh Framework Programme, with its aim of fostering highly innovative fundamental research, the parallel project of a new transnational body first raises the question of a duplication of competences and of possibly spreading available financial resources too thinly. There is also the problem of the operating logistics of such a central institution with the accompanying fears of bureaucracy that are often inherent to supranational bodies. “Innovation cannot be decreed from above,” declared the European Research Advisory Board, which advises the Commission on EU research policy, in a recent opinion. Many universities and research institutes have also expressed a twofold concern: a financial concern and one relating to human resources, fearing that an EIT would act as a ‘brain drain’.

Aware of this mixed reception, in February 2006, the Commission drew up a proposal setting out the way forward in creating an EIT, while taking into account the possible pitfalls. A month later, under the Austrian presidency at the Brussels European Council, Commissioners Ján Figel’ (Education and Culture) and Janez Potočnik (Science and Research) again received a clear mandate to proceed rapidly in proposing a more detailed and concrete version of the proposal. Last June they published an initial reflection proposing the operational functioning of a future IET, placed under the supervision of a limited governing board and based on a competitive selection of ‘knowledge communities’ bringing together high-level teams and departments from universities, research and industry.

The Commission Communication presents this concept as a subject for debate and further clarification and is not seeking to set a timetable. But it does make a passionate call for the creation of this future European body that would be “able to promote excellence, attract talent globally, and provide a European working environment for students, researchers and innovation managers” and that “will be a European symbol of a renewed effort towards the creation of a competitive, knowledge-based society”.

Epizootic diseases in the virtual era

Disinfecting against bird flu in South-East Asia.
Disinfecting against bird flu in South-East Asia.
Epizone, a new Network of Excellence, has just been launched to help better control epizootic diseases. With EU funding of €14 million, it includes 18 research institutes – 15 in the Member States, two in China and one in Turkey – as well as such international bodies as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health, and SMEs. Epizootic diseases are a major threat, hitting livestock and aquaculture with potentially disastrous economic effects. Traditional swine fever resulted in the slaughter of 8 million pigs in the Netherlands in 1997 as well as 800 000 other animals in secondary outbreaks across Europe, representing a total loss of several million euros. Among the most recent problems, the H5N1 virus, which is responsible for bird flu and is, in principle, benign for wild birds, led to the deaths of tens of millions of poultry in South-East Asia.

Epizone aims to boost the scientific excellence of research on the emergence of epizootic diseases by pooling the knowledge of various specialists to improve detection, prevention and surveillance. Working groups concentrate on four areas: intervention strategies, surveillance, epidemiology and risk assessment. The network members will also organise communication actions, meetings and training and promote the dissemination of knowledge by acting as a ‘virtual institute’. Producers of animal-based foodstuffs, the agri-foodstuffs industries and consumers will be the first to benefit from the network’s activities, which are coordinated by the Centraal Instituut voor Dierziekte Contrôle (The Central Institute for Animal Disease Control) in Lelystad (NL).

Molecules in pictures

Molecular imaging detects a tumour of the tail. © Unité d’imagerie de l’expression des gènes, CEA-Inserm

Molecular imaging detects a tumour of the tail.
© Unité d’imagerie de l’expression des gènes, CEA-Inserm
Molecular biology + in vivo imaging = molecular imaging. This new science makes it possible to locate the molecules present in a living creature without disturbing it. Previously, most of the methods for visualising molecular interactions were based on in vitro or ex vivo techniques in which the tissue is isolated from its environment, thereby limiting the possibility of determining the dynamic of the processes at work. Molecular imaging now makes it possible to detect tumours more precisely, to carry out in vivo analyses of the expression of the genes involved in certain diseases, to validate markers and to evaluate in real time the effects of a medicine. In the case of tumours, for example, the disease is due to changes to a very small number of specific genes whose over- or under-expression can now be shown. Benefits are also expected in the field of the brain and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as in cardiology.

Faced with the challenge from the United States, which is at the forefront of developments in this field, Europe has just pooled its know-how in the European Society for Molecular Imaging (ESMI). The goals are pursued principally through Emil, the Network of Excellence for molecular imaging to combat cancer (58 partners from 13 countries), and the DiMI multidisciplinary Network of Excellence (55 partners, 13 countries), which brings together scientists working on the genome, players in the field of imaging and clinicians. ESMI currently has 35 members, including eight research centres, 19 universities and eight companies.

IPR Helpdesk – learn about intellectual property

How and why should I protect my ideas? How can I manage my intellectual property? How can I manage my know-how and my IPRs in an EU project? These are the three questions asked on the homepage of the IPR Helpdesk, set up for the assistance of researchers and industrialists. More specifically, this service gives precise information on European regulations, how to submit projects to the Commission and types of contracts available to consortiums. 

The IPR Helpdesk has a Helpline that gives individual and prompt responses – within three days – to all questions received. Its well-constructed website provides clear information on the complex field of IPRs with a series of documents available for downloading about contracts, patents, copyright, the information society, inventions, etc. There is also an extremely useful frequently asked questions section covering Community trademarks, software protection, consortium agreements for Framework Programmes, and more. Finally, the IPR Bulletin presents the latest news on intellectual property, together with the practical aspects of R&D.

The IPR Helpdesk’s services are free of charge and the information is available in six languages (English, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Polish). The project is coordinated by the University of Alicante and the partners are the Intellectual Property Law Institute of Jagiellonian University Krakow in Poland and the German company Eurice.

Vaccines: European research coveted by the US

Vaccine production unit using cell culture in the Netherlands. © Solvay
Solvay. Vaccine production unit using cell culture in the Netherlands.
© Solvay
The United States has just allocated more than US$1 billion (€819 million) to the development of new anti-influenza vaccines, including against bird flu. Three European laboratories have received the lion’s share of the funding thanks to their innovative responses to the calls for tender. Solvay in Belgium (US$298.58 million), GlaxoSmithKline in the UK (US$274.75 million) and Novartis in Switzerland (US$220.51 million) were allocated the biggest budgets. This was more than the US laboratories MedImmune and DynPort Vaccine (US$169.46 and US$40.97 million respectively).

All these firms are now working on cell culture, whereas until recently anti-flu vaccines were produced from the eggs of inoculated chickens. This method required large amounts of raw material and meticulous preparation, as each egg had to be inoculated individually. It also included an element of risk in the case of a disease peculiar to birds. Cell cultures make it possible to work much more quickly and, thereby, respond to the demands of a pandemic.

These contracts provide a firm footing for European firms in the United States. Solvay, for example, will be building a high-tech production line for cell-cultured vaccines based on the experience acquired with its new production, filling and packaging facilities in the Netherlands.

One in three humans has a mobile phone

One in three humans has a mobile phone
Two billion mobile phone users. That is the figure put forward in June by the GSM Association (GSMA). And it is growing all the time, with a thousand new users every minute. The third generation of mobile phones (3GSM services) have already attracted 72 million users. “It took the industry 12 years to reach the first billion connections. The second billion was achieved just two and a half years later, driven by the phenomenal increase on emerging markets, such as China, India, Africa and Latin America, where 82% of the users who account for this second billion are to be found,” explains Craig Ehrlich, President of GSMA. Today, China is the world’s leading market for mobile phones, with over 370 million users, followed by Russia (145 million), India (83 million) and the United States (78 million). This everyday item, with many cheap versions available, is more common in developing countries than in their industrialised counterparts.

Modernising European universities

Europe has more than 4 000 universities with 17 million students and 435 000 researchers. Matters of their autonomy, modernisation, full participation in the knowledge society and competitiveness were on the agenda at the European Council in Hampton Court, in October 2005. The subject was then studied by the Aho group, who published their report in February. The group presented a model designed to enable universities to become significant economic players with the capacity to develop partnerships with companies quickly.

The Commission subsequently presented nine new proposals to this effect (university-industry relations, grants, training in management and communication, etc.). “Universities are power houses of knowledge production,” declared Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik. “They will need to adapt to the demands of a global, knowledge-based economy, just as other sectors of society and of the economy have to adapt. The ideas we are putting forward today should help kick-start a debate among Member States and also within the universities themselves.”