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US and EU Prepare to Dole Out Public Money For Proteomics Centers and Networks

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While proteomics has been the darling of private investors for several years, governments in the US and in Europe are now getting ready to open their checkbooks to large-scale proteomics research as well. At this time, scientists in the US are crossing their fingers for favorable funding decisions. Meanwhile, their colleagues across the Atlantic are forming alliances to apply for EU funding later this year.

Last fall, the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute announced a proteomics initiative “to establish local, highly interactive, multi-disciplinary centers” that will both develop proteomics technologies and apply them to biological problems in the areas of heart, lung, blood, or sleep research.

Similar to National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ protein structure initiative, the funding volume will be considerable: NHLBI intends to finance 10 centers over a period of up to seven years with an average of $2.1 million per year. These centers are open to industry members as well, as long as they agree to disseminate the methods and products that will result from the research. Scientists submitted their proposals at the end of February this year and are currently waiting to hear back at the end of September.

In the meantime, the European Union is getting ready for its “sixth framework programme,” which will provide EU-wide research funding in different areas for five years. Even though the funding comes from only a fraction of the research budgets of each individual member state, it is more than just peanuts: euro 2,150 has been tentatively earmarked for “genomics and biotechnology for health,” one of seven priority areas. While previous framework programs tended to focus on strengthening Europe’s industry, this one will also foster more basic research. For the first time, “networks of excellence,” consisting of institutions and companies across Europe with a particular expertise, can apply for up to several million euros per year.

By the end of June, prospective networks may submit an “expression of interest” to the European Commission to convey an idea of the research that could be funded within each area. At the end of this year or early next year, formal proposals will be invited.

Julio Celis of the Danish Cancer Society is currently putting together a network of platform technologies for proteomics for the June deadline, and has so far gathered scientists from research centers in 10 different European countries, including EMBL, EBI, and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ). Cellzome of Heidelberg is the only company that has been interested in participating so far, but others may still join, Celis said. The consortium has not yet decided which biological system it wants to tackle, but it is hoping to settle on one or more projects at a meeting in early May. “Our arrangement will depend very much on having a pretty good biology added to it,” said Celis, and he expects stiff competition from other networks.

Apart from doing research, one task of the networks will be to train researchers, and even Eastern and Central European scientists might be eligible. This is where Cellzome sees its role within a network, at least for now. “There is a great lack of expertise in protein mass spectrometry worldwide,” said Walter Blackstock, vice president of technology at Cellzome. “What we could contribute [to the network] would certainly be some training.”

Celis hopes that by pooling expertise across the EU, the networks could help prevent further brain drain of researchers to the US, especially from smaller member countries that lack a critical mass of expertise and resources. “We can raise the level of science in Europe, make the industry more competitive and make Europe more appealing for people to come back or come to do work here,” he said.

— JK