New research body can enhance imaging's future

November 5, 2004



The strength of radiology is only as great as the strength of the specialty's innovations. That principle underlies an ambitious long-term plan to create a new pan-European institute for top-quality fundamental and applied biomedical imaging research.

Planners are dreaming of an institute at a large physical base somewhere in Europe. This body will house hundreds of researchers, wield a substantial budget, and allocate funding, as well as conduct its own cutting-edge studies. Funding would come from European Union bodies and industry. There is much momentum and support behind the project, and hopes are high that the institute will become a reality within five to 10 years.

Plans for the organization are modeled after the U.S. National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), which was launched relatively recently under the umbrella of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The creation of a NIBIB-type of body is a primary goal of a new research committee set up in March 2004 by the European Association of Radiology (EAR). The committee is charged with developing strategies for strengthening infrastructure, advancing imaging as a science in European institutions, stimulating interest in academic radiology as a career option, and generally encouraging excellence in research.

Biomedical imaging is growing in importance in relation to research in fundamental areas such as molecular and genetic processes. Biomedical imaging research is a "translational research" in that it helps to bring laboratory discoveries into the clinic. The field of molecular imaging builds a bridge between fundamental research and clinical applications.

The EAR research committee has developed an action plan to ensure that the development of biomedical imaging research stays on the agenda for the EAR and its members, politicians, and industrial partners. Because it is likely to take many years to get a physical institute up and running in Europe, the EAR committee intends to start with the establishment of an extensive network that will coordinate European centers of excellence for imaging research projects. The network would consist of a number of core institutions and affiliated institutions and could be launched as early as the next European Congress of Radiology in March 2005.

One of the committee's first steps is to conduct an extensive survey among European institutions and organizations to determine potential participation in a network of excellence. Endorsement of European specialist imaging associations will help foster the network's development and broaden the scope of the whole enterprise.

A network of excellence has many potential benefits for participants, including shared organizational and communication systems as well as, ultimately, provision of additional funding and grants.

There will, of course, be challenges. Europe has no equivalent of the NIH to coordinate networks and operate institutes. The political environment and healthcare structures that currently serve Europe as a whole are less developed than in the U.S., where lobbying by radiologists led to the launch of NIBIB. But most politicians in Europe are already convinced that if we are not investing in R&D and innovation, we will lose in the long run. The European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development underscores the importance of innovation and fosters the development of networking initiatives.

Currently, research institutes in Europe backed by national funding organizations work to provide results for individual countries. To bring them together in cooperative efforts, incentives such as additional funding and better coordination of some services will be offered. Help with human resources is also likely.

A network of excellence could help meet their needs by organizing an exchange of personnel between countries. It could also play a training role in countries where programs are less developed.

In the U.S., the funding of healthcare research is highly centralized. Much of the funding for the NIBIB is used to support research performed at institutions throughout the country.

Would that model work in Europe? If the decision is up to the scientific and professional communities, the answer is yes. We are optimistic about gaining support from politicians, industrial partners, and the public as we build a more cooperative, structured environment for biomedical imaging research.

PROF. KRESTIN is chair of radiology at Erasmus MC, University Medical Center at Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He is also chair of the EAR's committee on research. This column reflects the author's personal opinions.