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Europe takes aim at major metabolic disease with Systems Biology: Plan to change the way medical research is done

A major European initiative against major metabolic disorders such as obesity is to be launched at the EuroBioForum conference at Lisbon in December 2007.

The aim is to revolutionise the way medical research is conducted by taking an engineering-led approach under the umbrella of systems biology, in which rigorous mathematical models are derived from experimental data and used to make predictions, about disease for example, that can be tested and then refined.

Ultimately such methods will be applied to all major problems in biology, but for the upcoming EuroBioForum, the focus will be on one field, metabolic syndrome, as a proving ground for the new approach, according to Professor Roel van Driel from the University of Amsterdam and Netherlands Institute for Systems Biology and co-chair of the ESF Forward Look on Systems Biology. He is also the proposer of the Systems Biology to combat Metabolic Syndrome (SBMS) initiative.

The SBMS plan is to establish a coordinated €175 million 10-year European programme with the ultimate ambition of developing effective therapies, including diet and lifestyle as well as drugs, that both reduce the risk of acquiring metabolic syndrome conditions, and bring significant relief for existing sufferers. Metabolic syndrome embraces a range of serious inter-related conditions including obesity and diabetes. The programme would adopt an engineering-led data-driven approach to systematically unravel the combined molecular, cellular, and organismal basis of the individual metabolic syndrome components, according to van Driel. These components include insulin resistance, associated with Type II diabetes, the most common form of diabetes in the western word; weight gain; glucose intolerance; high blood pressure; and high blood cholesterol (dyslipedemia), which can cause atherosclerosis, a disease of the blood vessels.

The radical departure of SBMS from the traditional ad hoc approach to medical research was motivated by a growing appreciation of how complex all important biological problems are, according to van Driel. This realisation has developed since completion of major genome sequencing projects, which created huge amounts of data, but as yet little more understanding of how biology works at a fundamental level.

The key to success of SBMS will lie in creating a coordinated framework of world class projects. Some of these will draw from existing national and Europe-wide programmes that are concentrating at present on specific aspects of metabolic syndrome. “We will select those that are fit for a systems biology approach and create a strong and well-focused consortium of European research groups,” said van Driel, who conceded that this was far from trivial.

Indeed the challenge posed by systems biology was more organisational than scientific, van Driel insisted. “It’s not primarily a science problem. We are good at doing the science itself, but very poor at getting organised.”

However, EuroBioForum’s role is to tackle this organisational challenge with a new approach. EuroBioForum is the annual conference of EuroBioFund, which was launched in 2006 by the European Science Foundation with support from the EU through the Sixth Framework Programme, to bring together public and private sources of funding to catalyse the development of large scale pan-European life science research programmes.

The SBMS project will be a testing ground both for both EuroBioFund’s approach to research funding, and the new methods driven by systems biology, aiming to make research more clearly defined and based on computational models that make testable predictions and are capable of continuous refinement in the light of emerging data. “We aim to change the way biomedical research is done,” said van Driel.

Thomas Lau | alfa
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