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Pilot 'Integrated Projects' signal a shift in the European research landscape

Towards the end of 2002, the Commission launched three large scale, pilot Integrated Projects in the field of genomics research for human health. A year into their work, the experiences and achievements of these initiatives provide an insight into what effect the new instrumen...

Towards the end of 2002, the Commission launched three large scale, pilot Integrated Projects in the field of genomics research for human health. A year into their work, the experiences and achievements of these initiatives provide an insight into what effect the new instruments of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) will have on research in Europe. Set up within the framework of the Quality of Life section of FP5, the three projects were not specifically designed to test the effectiveness of the new FP6 instruments, but their scale, objectives and working methods closely resemble key features of the new Networks of Excellence and Integrated Projects. To ensure the required critical mass of expertise, each project will expend a minimum of 150 researcher years of effort. All incorporate clusters of groundbreaking research projects, coordination projects to encourage synergy between national programmes, and host fellowships to provide training to young researchers within academic and industrial partners. CORDIS News spoke to the Commission's Head of Unit for fundamental genomics, Dr Manuel Hallen, along with the scientific officers responsible for coordinating the three projects from within the Commission, and asked them what had been achieved so far. 'This is still a learning process for all those involved, but after one year the results are already impressive,' said Dr Hallen. 'The level of networking and the number of meetings that have been organised is something that none of us have witnessed before.' Indeed, a high degree of cooperation among the various partners is essential when you consider that one project alone, EUMORPHIA, brings together 22 different teams from eight countries. The aim of this 12.3 million euro initiative is to gather the top research groups in Europe working in the field of mouse genetics in order to develop standardised protocols for the phenotyping of whole body systems. 'The mouse is the most widely used model for the study of genetic disorders in humans,' explained Dr Jacques Remacle, scientific officer for EUMORPHIA. 'It is essential for this area of genetics that standards for phenotyping are defined at European level. This not only avoids a replication of efforts, but provides experts working in different laboratories or countries with invaluable comparative data.' After a year of meetings and discussions, the consortium is now in a position to deliver primary phenotyping standard operating protocols (SOPs) by April 2004. Other project deliverables include the development of new informatics tools for the acquisition and dissemination of phenotype data. The purpose of the 13.7 million euro GENOMEUTWIN Integrated Project is somewhat different, due to the relative maturity of epidemiology research, explains scientific officer Dr Bernard Mulligan. 'Epidemiology in Europe is at an advanced stage, yet different countries have developed their capacities independently.' Dr Mulligan told CORDIS News that registries containing genetic and lifestyle information on population cohorts, especially twins, provide valuable tools for studying the factors that cause human disease. 'All of this information is currently held in several databases in different countries, so our aim is to pool this data into a specially designed European system.' The project is beginning to deliver interesting results on 'model' traits such as height and blood pressure, but breakthroughs related to complex diseases will take longer. The project also aims to disseminate the results beyond the consortium members, and indeed outside of the EU, and twin registries from countries including Australia have expressed an interest in joining the project. The third Integrated Project, SPINE, focuses on genomics at a molecular level. At its heart is the development of new high throughput techniques to determine the three dimensional structure of proteins from humans, bacteria and viruses, which shed light on biomolecular mechanisms relevant to human health and may provide targets for the development of new drugs. 'SPINE is the first transnational structural genomics project in Europe,' scientific officer Dr Josefina Enfedaque pointed out. The 20 partners involved in the project are networked via a common database that reflects the real time progress of work on various proteins, and can update users regarding breakthroughs in an area of interest to them. 'The SPINE project has not only produced a novel automatic crystallisation technique to speed up the process of characterising the structure of proteins, but was also responsible for determining the first structure of a SARS virus protein, which helped to identify targets for drug development,' concluded Dr Enfedaque. The ability to change the focus of research in the course of an EU funded project, as was the case with SPINE's work on the SARS virus, is an important breakthrough, according to Dr Hallen. 'Having the freedom to follow their own instincts is a new approach for scientists working in EU funded initiatives,' he said. When asked what lessons he and his colleagues had learned that could be applied to the new FP6 instruments, Dr Hallen highlighted the use of scientific advisory boards to monitor the progress of the projects. 'The advisory boards are made up of leading experts from across Europe and the world who have no connection to the project itself, and thus no vested interest. They are able to make very direct criticisms and recommendations, if necessary, and the consortium is obliged to act on them.' The bottom-up process of consultation with the scientific community that preceded the selection of the projects was also a valuable learning experience, according to Dr Hallen. Not only did it offer an overview of the cutting edge of genomic research in Europe and generate many investigator led ideas for similar large scale initiatives, it also provided his team with valuable preparation for the expressions of interest exercise that was used to guide the first calls for proposals under FP6, he concluded.