European scientists are gearing up to close the molecular imaging and medicine research gap with the U.S. As research spending rises, pan-European initiatives designed to make the most of the continent's scientific talent and technical resources are moving toward implementation.
The European Commission has for many years distributed R&D monies through a succession of so-called framework funding programs. The latest of these programs, FP6, will continue to solicit grant applications until the end of 2006. At the same time, discussions are under way to set budgets and priorities for FP7, the program that will shape the nature of European Union-funded R&D from 2007 to 2013.
Biomedical research topics are widely expected to receive a still greater proportion of funding in FP7. Unlike previous framework programs, which followed a bottom-up approach to funding, officials will be targeting wider research infrastructures for support, said Herve Pero, head of the research infrastructure unit at the EC's Directorate-General for Research.
"Research infrastructures are not only facilities and large instruments but also research services, that is, services that enable scientists to develop the best research possible," Pero said. "The best example in Europe is CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), which provides physicists great opportunities to understand matter. For biomedical researchers, it could be access to high-tech imaging scanners. It could also be the development of databases and bioinformatics that enable researchers to access relevant scientific data."
The European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), which includes representatives from all EU member states, is charged with turning this policy into reality. Pan-European projects that demonstrate scientific excellence, offer strategic impact, and have passed feasibility tests will be considered for inclusion in ESFRI's road map. Industry and national governments will then be asked to support the EC in realizing and running these schemes.
Biomedical imaging initiatives stand a good chance of receiving ESFRI backing, Pero said. The growing costs of research involving functional and structural imaging techniques dictate the coordination of efforts. The ongoing NeuroSpin project at the French atomic energy commission (CEA) research campus at Saclay, where four ultrahigh-field MR units are to be housed (Molecular Imaging Outlook November 2003), may also focus ESFRI's attention on imaging resources.
Dr. Gabriel Krestin, chair of radiology at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is heading efforts within the European Association of Radiology to establish a dedicated European Infrastructure for Biomedical Imaging Research (EIBIR).
The EIBIR's organizers are seeking approximately 0.8 million Euros($1 million) to kick-start the initiative as a Network of Excellence under FP6. The ultimate goal is creation of a bricks and mortar institute, but construction of a European equivalent to the U.S. National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering is likely to be dogged by disagreements, not least over which nation should host such a facility, Krestin said. If the EIBIR network proves successful, however, it may be easier to convince politicians of a physical institute's merits.
"It is clear there is some momentum," he said. "The Americans fought for 15 years to get their institute, and they achieved it because there is more willingness to support biomedical imaging now than 15 years ago."
Krestin acknowledges that the EC has already allocated money to alternative collectives of imaging researchers. The EIBIR network would have a far wider scope than anything that has been funded to date, he said.
"We are representing biomolecular imaging in all of its areas, while other Networks of Excellence have been focused on certain research topics," he said. "We are not limiting ourselves to one question."
Two such existing Networks of Excellence are the European Molecular Imaging Laboratories (EMIL) initiative (www.emilnet.org), and the Diagnostic Molecular Imaging (DiMI) network (www.dimi-net.org). EMIL, which has been up and running since July 2004, links 59 research groups and small to medium-sized companies, while DiMI launched in April 2005 with 52 partners. Both networks expect to receive several million euros over a period of three to five years.
Creation of multiple networks is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Dr. Lutz Kracht, scientific administrator for DiMI, who is based at the Laboratory for Gene Therapy and Molecular Imaging at the University of Cologne in Germany. He welcomes any initiative that strengthens pan-European MI research.
"The field is very fragmented, and direction is needed. Coordinated work, such as that being done in EMIL and DiMI, is very important as interest in molecular imaging continues to grow," he said.
Dr. Bertrand Tavitian, director of the CEA and INSERM laboratory for in vivo imaging of gene expression in Orsay, France, and coordinator of EMIL, is more skeptical about the new EIBIR proposal. Such activities are best driven by scientists, not medical doctors, he said.
"I do not want to appear negative about radiology, but I don't see how a radiologist can manage to insert a gene into a mouse correctly to look at calcium activation. I don't know if they will be expert in labeling with fluorine-18 or developing relaxation contrast agents," he said.
Krestin is well aware of his critics' views, having listened to negative comments from both clinical radiologists and laboratory scientists. But the EIBIR's proponents are confident they have sufficient muscle to press ahead, having received expressions of support from 150 departments and institutions. One-third of these were from outside radiology, representing researchers in biophysics, bioengineering, biochemistry, image processing, and neuroscience.
"The purpose is to set up something meaningful for biomedical research without any hidden agendas. We want to make this kind of research important," Krestin said. "It is, at the moment, an initiative led by the EAR. But in the future, there should be opportunities for others to become stakeholders."