Biotech, precision medicine centers receive record €60 million funding

University of Tartu.
University of Tartu. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The largest research grant in Estonia's history has been awarded to the University of Tartu to develop the digitization of the bio-industry and the creation of personalized medicine services. The European Commission and the Estonian government each provided €30 million for the development of two new cutting edge international centers of excellence.

 Digitization of bio-industry

Scientists at the University of Tartu are creating bacteria that can absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into sustainable materials. All of this is still cutting-edge, but €30 million will help to establish a completely new research capacity.

"This is a significant shift and a watershed moment for molecular science in Estonia. Our Danish partner, the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center, has created a completely unique model of a research center, which we are bringing now to Tartu. We are developing several digital bio-units, as well as a hall full of robotics and gear, so that we can analyze thousands of cells and genetically modified cells every day. Our problem is that we are facing both a climate and an ecological disaster. In fact, synthetic biology is the solution required to gear the green revolution," Professor of Molecular Systems Biology Mart Loog said.

Pharmaceuticals, building materials and energy sector are all areas of application of synthetic biology, which involves the re-engineering of living systems.

The other half of the €60 million grant becomes a centre entirely dedicated to public health.

Development of personalized medicine

The project is supported by the European Commission with €15 million and the Estonian state investing the same amount.

Over the next six years, a consortium led by the University of Tartu and Tartu University Hospital will establish a personalized medicine research and development center. The new international center of excellence will combine clinical genetics research with routine patient diagnosis and treatment.

Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Tartu Mait Metspalu said that the data of the Estonian Biobank has allowed making important scientific discoveries about the links between genes and health, yet we are still several steps away from implementing genetics-based health services.

This would require closer collaboration between different research disciplines, from clinical medicine and public health to social and data sciences.

"Since its establishment, the Estonian Biobank has aimed to advance Estonian healthcare by developing personalised medicine. The investment received for the centre is an acknowledgement to the university for years of research and infrastructure development on the one hand, and to the Estonian state for building digital databases, services and legal framework enabling the development of personalised medicine on the other," Metspalu said.

The creation of the region's most powerful centre of expertise will allow studying all stages of implementing personalised medicine through collaboration between different scientific disciplines.

"The role of the centre for personalised medicine, which will be established with the help of collaboration between the various institutes and the clinic, will be to bring together all of the different nodes, all of the different stakeholders in order to bring personalised medicine much closer to reality," he said.

"There are also plans to sequence the genomes of approximately 10,000 individuals to fully describe our genetic diversity and to incorporate this into our efforts," he added.

"While the main role of the University of Tartu is to develop scientific methods and new data tools, Tartu University Hospital will conduct clinical trials to study and validate applications developed by research partners in collaboration with patients," Head of the Genetics and Personalized Medicine Clinic at Tartu University Hospital Sander Pajusalu said.

In addition to clinical trials, it is also important to assess the impact of personalised medicine services on society, the economy and public health. 

The consortium wants to make Estonians' health data more digitally useful, hence promoting healthcare innovation.

Professor of Bioinformatics at the University of Tartu Jaak Vilo said that Estonia is a pioneer in creating an electronic health records system, yet some of the data is still unstructured and in free-text format.

"We need a data sharing and analysis system that can be used for research, but also for creating personalised medicine tools and clinical guidelines. In this way, we will enable better use of electronic health records for research and treatment alike," Vilo said.

A well-organised health data infrastructure and Estonia's strong start-up environment could boost health technology startups, which in turn would accelerate the flow of research into society. 

Bioinformatics will play an important role in both centres.

"A new niche in biology and synthetic biology is emerging, and we want to create a link between Estonian molecular biology and the Estonian IT sector in order to generate significant economic output," Loog explained.

"Both synthetic biology and genetics, which we have been familiar with for a long time, as well as the field of personalized medicine, are quite unique in their approach, and it is a huge acknowledgement that this is the right course of action," Rector of the University of Tartu Toomas Asser said.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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