The Netherlands and Luxembourg are battling to become the world’s biobank research hub, as Europe begins to attract multi-million euro research projects from the US and beyond.
Industry sources say Europe is attempting to steal a march on the heavily-regulated biotech sector in the US, where biobanking faces political and ethical challenges from some quarters.
European leaders have agreed to offer VAT exemptions to a pan-European biobank initiative which will also be given special legal status, making it easier to recruit top scientists.
The EU, often criticised for overburdening scientists with red tape, is currently seen as friendlier to biobanks than the US, although work is underway to strengthen rules in this highly fragmented area of European research.
There is also wide variation across the 27-nation bloc when it comes to legal and ethical approaches to governing research on biological material, with northern Europeans being traditionally more receptive to biobanking.
Competition to become Europe’s biobanking hub
The Netherlands and Austria are competing to host the European Biobanking and Biomolecular Research Infrastructure (BBMRI), which will benefit from VAT-free status.
Under regulations offering favourable legal status to pan-European research projects, the BBMRI must base its headquarters in just one member state but a final decision on its location has yet to be made.
In the meantime, a consortium from the Netherlands has received €22.5 million from the Dutch government to establish national biobanking infrastructure in a project that brings together eight university medical centres and several other research institutes and universities.
The BBMRI-NL project aims to establish quality-assessed biobanks with greatly improved accessibility to biomaterials.
The Dutch authorities say the plan will help make it a global centre for research in this area. Biobanking will be given high priority in the ‘national roadmap’ for research infrastructure, and an expert panel has indicated that further investment should follow in three years’ time.
However, The Netherlands also faces stiff competition from a small but wealthy neighbour. Luxembourg, previously better known for its financial banking than tissue banks, is pouring €140 million into a five-year project which will see the tiny European nation team up with Arizona-based biotech corporation TGen.
The Integrated Biobank Luxembourg (IBBL) is a key part of Luxembourg’s plan to turn itself into a biomedical hub focusing on diagnostic biomarkers.
TGen and Luxembourg investigators are jointly developing computer software that will help track and link tissue samples with patients for research. The tissue bank will serve as an international repository, analysis and distribution point for blood, serum, saliva, tumours and other samples, which will be made available to scientists across Europe.
Political momentum behind Luxembourg project
Political momentum has been gathering in support of the Luxembourg-TGen link-up, with US Senator John McCain paying a visit to Luxembourg in March. McCain, a senator for Arizona and former US presidential candidate, met with senior officials to lobby for closer ties between his state and Luxembourg in the biotech sector.
In April, Jeannot Krecké, Luxembourg’s minister of the economy and foreign trade, visited Arizona for discussions with TGen, just as the ground was broken on the IBBL’s new building on the campus of Luxembourg’s Public Research Centre for Health.
The IBBL has appointed Robert Hewitt as CEO and expects to hire around 70 staff. Hewitt, who has developed biobanks in England and Saudi Arabia, said “generous government support” and expertise provided by TGen can help make Luxembourg a world-class centre for biobanking.