October 17, 2013 12:14 am

Doctor prescribes boost for biomedicine in EU

A worker inspects a silicon wafer through a microscope in a Texas Instruments cleanroom©Bloomberg

In focus: medical research

Michel Goldman, a Belgian doctor, set up the Institute for Medical Immunology in 2004 to build bridges between academia and industry in Wallonia. A decade later, he runs an organisation with the same initials pursuing similar goals on a far more significant scale across Europe.

The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) aims to create EU partnerships to boost biomedical projects. As it makes the case for fresh funding from the start of next year, it can already point to some achievements with global impact.

IMI has used EU funding to gain support from academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies across Europe, so they can collaborate on projects that would otherwise prove too difficult or costly.

Industry and the European Commission each pledged €1bn, and 42 projects involving 4,500 scientists got under way, resulting in the publication of more than 300 academic papers to date.

The plan was to build on Europe’s strength in medical and pharmaceutical innovation, reinforce its position as a centre of research and development, and prevent a brain drain of expertise and investment to other parts of the world.

Mr Goldman says he is particularly proud of two projects: a programme on autism that has developed a clinical trial network, an animal model and possible drug “targets” for the condition; and the European Lead Factory, which shares and tests compound libraries of experimental medicines to assess their potential efficacy.

“The fact that IMI has been shown to be workable in Europe is helping others to reflect,” he says. He points to interest in other parts of the world, including the US and Japan, in starting similar projects.

IMI remains focused on early-stage research to identify promising approaches to diagnosis and treatment, ahead of the “competitive” stage when companies develop experimental medicines and test them in patients before marketing approvals and sale.

But the organisation has recently branched out to support clinical work where the scientific challenges are high and the financial incentives for companies are modest, including Combacte, a programme to tackle antibiotic resistance. IMI also works with the European Medicines Agency and others on post-launch surveillance of vaccines. Ironically, many of the drug companies, which are fiercely competitive and defend their intellectual property rights aggressively, have lined up to work on IMI programmes. Indeed, some of the more vocal critics have been academic institutions.

The League of European Research Universities has expressed concerns that IMI funding does not cover the academic partners’ full direct costs or overheads – drug companies also have to contribute significantly from their own resources. The League has also cautioned over the loss of control of researchers’ intellectual property rights.

This year, Italy’s Mario Negri Institute pulled out of its planned participation in Combacte, because it felt it did not have sufficient control over trial design, access to data or freedom to publish on an experimental drug that GlaxoSmithKline planned to use in tests on patients. Other academic partners have been more positive, stressing that, the benefits of partnership in a Europe-wide network and accelerating work on antibiotic resistance outweigh the drawbacks. Such reactions give Mr Goldman hope that IMI will be able to proceed with enhanced funding from the European Commission as well as its industry partners totalling €3.5bn in a second iteration beginning in 2014.

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