NEW YORK – Researchers at the University of Cyprus were recently awarded €15 million ($16.7 million) to fund the establishment of a biobanking center of excellence as well as to embark on a domestic human genome project.
The European Commission will fund the effort through 2026, but the Cypriot government will contribute an additional €15 million over the next 15 years. The University of Cyprus has also committed €8 million to the project, according to Constantinos Deltas, director of the Molecular Medicine Research Center in Nicosia.
"The idea is to upgrade our operation to a higher level of biobanking and to develop the Cyprus Human Genome Project," Deltas said.
Deltas founded the MMRC at the University of Cyprus in 2010 with €2 million in state funding. Since that time, the center has built a small biobank to support local research efforts, but its organizers have been looking to expand. In 2014, the center received roughly €461,000 as part of the first phase of a Horizon 2020 grant to develop a business plan for the project. It recently received through Horizon 2020 €15 million for the second phase, which commenced Oct. 1 and will run through September 2026.
In addition to the University of Cyprus, the Biobanks and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure Consortium (BBMRI-ERIC), a European biobanking research organization, is taking part in the new project, as is the Medical University of Graz. Both BBMRI-ERIC and MUG are based in Graz, Austria.
According to Deltas, BBMRI-ERIC and MUG will help the center implement a new biobank, covering norms related to data quality management, as well as addressing ethical, legal, and social issues and data protection.
Erik Steinfelder, director general at BBMRI-ERIC, noted that the organization supports a network of more than 600 biobanks across Europe and currently enables access to roughly 100 million samples. As a senior partner to the project, BBMRI-ERIC will ensure that the upgraded Cypriot biobanking center will "be a fully contributing member of the largest biobanking community in Europe," Steinfelder said. "The role of BBMRI-ERIC in this project is clear: to help our Cypriot colleagues to connect their work with other high-level European initiatives, and therefore increase the relevance of the new Cypriot biobanking infrastructure," he said.
Upgrading the center's biobank is one of the central pillars of the project. While the small resource developed with state funding has been "good enough for research," the Cypriot researchers now aim to "expand it at a great extent so that we can biobank many more thousands of samples, as well as patients' associated medical data and biological material," Deltas said. "The idea is to [have] biobanking at a European level in compliance with European standards in collaboration with experts," he said.
With a horizon of 15 years, Deltas did not estimate how many samples will be stored in the envisioned repository. The Republic of Cyprus currently has a population of around 1.2 million. The Mediterranean island country is currently bifurcated by the republic and the northern part of the island, which has been under Turkish control since 1974. Biobanking efforts will cover the entire island, though, Deltas said, as he maintains contacts with Turkish Cypriot scientists in the north.
Efforts to whole-genome sequence or genotype statistically significant cohorts are in progress across Europe. The best known effort is arguably the UK Biobank study, which involves 500,000 volunteers, but similar genome projects have been pioneered in Iceland, Estonia, and Finland.
Most of these projects have been in Northern Europe, though, and Deltas sees a role for Cyprus as a bridge in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern biobanking projects. He even envisions the creation of a "Medieuro Network" that could complement European efforts to better cooperate with partners in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to Deltas, the nascent network includes labs from Greece, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan, and may expand to others too to create a "coalition on biobanking and diseases in this part of the world."
Now that the project is funded, Deltas and collaborators will lay the foundation for both the new biobanking and biomedical research center, as well as the Cyprus Human Genome Project, he said. "We will hire new personnel, build new premises, buy new equipment," said Deltas. "There will be a lot of research and infrastructure activities."
Meantime, for the Cyprus Human Genome Project, Deltas and colleagues intend to whole-genome sequence 500 trios — parents and children, so 1,500 samples all together. They also intend to carry out whole-exome sequencing of an additional thousand samples. The whole-genome sequence data will be used to create a reference genome for the Cypriot population. At the moment, the center has not yet decided on a platform or partner to do the sequencing, but they do plan to outsource that work.
"We will announce tenders and take orders," said Deltas. "Even if we wanted to do it on our side, it would be more expensive," he said. "Nowadays, it is cheaper if you do it with big suppliers through outsourcing."
Data will be analyzed on site in Nicosia in a yet to be created bioinformatics unit. "We hope that we will have the results [from the analysis] in the next few years," he said.
The reference genome will also be used as a baseline for future research projects, another pillar of the project. Deltas said that researchers aim to embark on studies of several inherited disorders including kidney disorders, heart disorders, oncology, and rare diseases. "Of course, this will evolve," Deltas noted. "More people are coming in and are interested in collaborating with us, cooperating on projects on diseases of their own interest."
But, that interest extends beyond independent researchers, he said, noting that pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest in working with the center in the future and may match participation with investments. Those kinds of deals, plus new grant awards and the sale of potential new diagnostics, could also contribute to the effort, which Deltas said could have an overall budget of €60 million by the middle of the 2030s.
Business development is also an aspect of the new project, Deltas noted. In addition to the University of Cyprus, BBMRI-ERIC, and MUG, RTD Talos, a Cypriot consulting firm, has been engaged as a partner.
Mariel Voutounou, a project manager at Talos, is now the director of business development for the new project. She said that her company has been involved in more than 50 European research projects where it managed administrative and financial tasks, as well asoverall legal, ethical, financial and administrative issues.
In the new project, Talos will be charged with dissemination of results; education and other activities; business development and sustainability; and intellectual property rights management, innovation, and market strategy, she said.
In addition, she said Talos would support an "incubator of novel ideas with marketable potential that will best serve the market needs and opportunities and lead to new startups and spinoff biotechnology companies." She added that the center would work together with the University of Cyprus to "explore any potential for innovative data, as applied in the medical field, the society and the commercial sector, aimed to supporting" the center.
Voutounou declined to further elaborate on the business prospects of the center or the Cyprus Human Genome Project at this time. Deltas confirmed though that generating new products and services is an aspiration of the center. "The ultimate goal is to make [the biobank] self-sustainable," he said.