EU attracting biobank research from US

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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. 

Kurt Zatloukal, of the Medical University of Graz, and coordinator of BBMRI said he hoped other member states would follow the example set by the Dutch government by making national biobanking infrastructure a high priority. 

Gertjan van Ommen  of the Department of Human Genetics at Leiden University Medical Centre said the Dutch biobanking centre will spark further epidemiological and biomedical research in The Netherlands. 

"The existing materials are often of high value and quality, but underused because of fragmentation. With the BBMRI-NL initiative, The Netherlands is responding in a timely fashion to a global trend towards very big research units. This has provided us a frontrunner position in the European biobanking field. Plus, it makes us an attractive partner for those who are interested in development of better medicines and medical practice," he said. 

Jean-Claude Schmit, chairman of the Luxembourg-based IBBL and CEO of CRP-Santé, said biobanking will be a crucial source of future innovation in the research sector. 

"The IBBL will allow us to have state-of-the-art samples for research. It is opening our country to international research. For TGen, it's an opportunity to access the European research market,'" said Schmit. 

Collections of biological materials such as DNA, tissues, cells or blood can be stored in biobanks to help scientists conduct research into cures for diseases. Samples are usually anonymised or coded so that researchers cannot identify the individual whose tissue or blood they are working with. 

There are at least over 100 biobanks dotted across Europe, but the system for collecting and using the material varies significantly from country to country. In 2008, the Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI) was set up, with an initial budget of €5 million to improve coordination between biobanks (EURACTIV 19/06/09). 

The centre is the first to benefit from VAT-free status in the EU, under a regulation agreed by European leaders earlier this year (EURACTIV 17/9/09). 

Meanwhile, Luxembourg has begun positioning itself as a major centre for biobank research, with the government pumping millions of euros of public money into infrastructure and incentives for investors. 

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