Clockwise from top left: Edith Heard, Sidney Altman, Tomas Kirchhausen, Stelios Papadopoulos, Daniel Louvard and David Baltimore. In the center, Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas.
Can Greece claim a spot on the global map of biomedical research? What kind of investment would be needed for such a small country to accomplish this? How could it lead to synergies with the industry? And what would it mean for education and the economy?
Professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School and chair at the College de France Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas, a distinguished scientist who has worked with some of the biggest universities in Europe and the United States, has answers to all this and more.
He not only has knowledge and experience in every facet of biomedical research, but also a vision about how his homeland could benefit. Moreover, the nonprofit Fondation Santé, of which he is president and co-founder, has a yearly program for funding biomedical research, on the condition that it is conducted in Greece.
Beyond its negative consequences, the pandemic is also an opportunity, says Artavanis-Tsakonas.
“One of its numerous implications is that many fellow citizens who had never shown an interest in biological research now acknowledge how vital it is for humanity. There is no doubt that the huge public health challenges we are dealing with today will be dealt with, sooner or later, only through comprehensive research,” says the scientist.
“Another thing that has emerged from the pandemic is the understanding that there is such a thing as reliable research, and research of a more inferior quality. So it is time to support efforts that will help Greece not only keep up in the global biomedical research race, but also become a leader. We have the potential and the people to achieve this.”
On this upbeat note, Artavanis-Tsakonas presents, in Kathimerini, the following article containing specific proposals to this end. His views and confidence are shared by a group of scientists and professionals with extensive academic and scientific experience – Greeks, overseas Greeks and others – including two Nobel laureates.
The article is co-signed by: Dr David Baltimore, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology, a former president of Rockefeller University and a 1975 Nobel laureate in medicine; Yale University professor emeritus of molecular, cellular and developmental biology Dr Sidney Altman, who earned the Nobel in Chemistry in 1989; Collège de France epigenetics professor Edith Heard, who is also director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory; Harvard University cell biology professor Dr Tomas Kirchhausen; Dr Vincent Colot, professor of epigenetics at the École Normale Supérieure; Dr Daniel Louvard, a professor of cell biology and former director of the Curie Institute Research Center; Dr Stelios Papadopoulos, board chairman at biotechnology firm Biogen and Fondation Santé; Dr John Sedat, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco; professor Gerald Rubin, vice-president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and executive director emeritus of Janelia Research Campus; and Fondation Santé Executive Director Fulla Chapple. Here is what they recommend:
Biomedicine: A cutting-edge technology for Greece
In recent decades the biological sciences have revolutionized our understanding of molecular mechanisms underlying living organisms and, consequently, how we approach medicine. Evolving technologies allow the exploitation and translation of basic biological principles into medical approaches, promising therapies for catastrophic human diseases.
The development of biomedicine in Greece is of exceptional importance. If we invest now in existing intellectual capital, we will create a platform that will allow Greece to be competitive on an international level in what is arguably the cutting-edge technology of the 21st century. Importantly, we will offer opportunities of meaningful employment to highly educated and skilled professionals with little in the form of real employment prospects at present, thus serving as a dam to slow the devastating brain drain that has been exacerbated over the past decade. Developing biomedicine will create synergies with our universities and research institutes, hence contributing significantly to education. Last but not least, it has the potential to catalyze new economic opportunities that are now essentially nonexistent.
Intellectual capital in Greece
The development of biomedicine depends primarily upon intellectual capital, which exists in Greece today. Greece can become an international player in biomedicine, a driver and not a follower, once the right financial and institutional structures are created. That a critical mass of biomedical researchers exists in Greece today is not a vague assertion but an assessment based upon our experience in evaluating biomedical research grant applications from Greece on behalf of Fondation Santé (www.fondationsante.org). The small foundation of which we are part was established by Greeks in the USA in 2000 to support biomedicine in Greece and Cyprus.
Every year we receive 70-100 research proposals out of which we can fund approximately 10%, at a level of €25,000 per year. Over the nine years we have been running this program we have seen more than 700 applications, covering the vast majority of biomedical research teams at universities and research institutions. It has become clear that there is a significant number of highly capable research teams that could excel given the right framework, economic and otherwise, and be competitive at an international level.
If an adequate level of support existed to fund approximately 10-20 research teams after strict evaluation, it could have a transformative effect on Greek biomedical research today but laying also a foundation for the future. Such a program would require five years of support in the order of an annual grant of €200,000 per team, a sum compatible with international funding standards. In summary, we estimate that the yearly cost will be 2-4 million euros for the duration of five years. The program can of course be extended as long as funds and appropriate research projects can be identified, but we believe a start at this scale will demonstrate how successful this approach can be.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that paradigms for such a funding structure, albeit at a much larger scale, exist. For example, the US-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI, www.hhmi.org) has consistently delivered extraordinary research results for over 30 years, resulting in over 25 Nobel Prizes among its grantees. HHMI supports more than 250 research teams at more than 60 research institutions across the United States, strictly selected on the basis of the quality and innovation of the research programs.
The relationship of biomedical research with industry
There is no doubt that biomedical research can benefit from a relationship with the biopharma industry and vice versa. Basic biology research has the potential to be translated into novel therapeutic products as well as identify novel, and indeed, revolutionary new therapeutic avenues. The possibility that basic research can attract funds from industry is a desirable goal that can help enormously. However, in order to attract funds from industry for novel programs that would lead to biological/pharmaceutical “products,” basic biological research of the highest quality is the absolute prerequisite.
If we create the framework necessary to carry out the highest quality research, we will also succeed in creating a novel economic nucleus for Greece. This can eventually become a serious source of research funds but also provide important employment opportunities while contributing significantly to education and health. We strongly believe that centers of research excellence in our public universities and institutes can be generally beneficial to education in Greece. It is no accident that the best universities in the world are also centers of research excellence.
Outlining the program
The program we propose has four cornerstones:
1. Upon availability of funds, a call will request proposals for five-year research programs.
2. An international review committee (Scientific Advisory Board) will be established in the same way we have done for Fondation Santé, based on scientific merit. This committee will evaluate progress, ensuring the highest academic standards as well as advise on how best to nurture the work of the selected groups.
3. The Scientific Advisory Board will also explore and help establish scientific bridges between research institutions in Greece and similar institutions abroad (e.g. the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, EMBL). The Board will thus help catalyze and encourage academic synergies within Greece as well as help optimize infrastructure investments.
4. Recognizing research that has the potential for commercialization may be of great benefit to the research institutions and research teams. This is a prerequisite for attracting funds from industry but is difficult to identify and evaluate. Such assessments demand expert knowledge in basic science, product development, patent law and commercialization. Thus, a small international team of experts needs to be established with demonstrable experience in these areas who can evaluate the potential for an intellectual property portfolio and establish the basis of a development program.
Implementation of the program
Our proposal has the potential of providing the seed to radically transform biomedical research in Greece, bringing positive benefits to education, the economy and employment, as well as addressing the acute problem of the brain drain we are experiencing. A yearly investment of 2-4 million euros for five years is by no means prohibitively large. Both public as well as private sources should be able to support such a program.