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European Group on Life Sciences
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Conclusions of the European Group of Life Sciences (EGLS) on the future of life sciences research

As Europe heads decisively towards a competitive knowledge-based economy, scientific research is growing as one of the ultimate pillars of our viability as a sustainable society. Modern life sciences have brought about immense expectations for improving health, agriculture and the environment, and have opened new avenues for key industrial sectors such as energy production, chemical engineering and the development of new materials. Yet these advances need to develop in parallel with an adequate level of social acceptance which should make scientific and technical progress compatible with the diversity of cultural expectations and value systems that we enjoy on our continent.

The one lesson to emerge after a decade of controversies (GM food, stem cells, reproductive technologies...) is that research, development and innovation can hardly prosper in the face of social opposition to science. Citizens' demands for greater control over their taxes and explanations of how they are spent sometimes come as an unwelcome surprise to scientists traditionally educated in the culture of pure, curiosity-driven research. We are convinced that the way forward is not to avoid or to disguise the debate over modern life science research, but to promote a structured and informed discussion among all stakeholders of any given challenge – those already existing and those still to come. Stakeholders’ meetings have been one of the trademarks of the EGLS, and we believe that this format could inspire new ways to raise support for science and, ultimately, to make the Lisbon dream a reality1. One of the principal elements of such a debate is to explain what areas of modern scientific endeavour in the life sciences are likely to yield benefits to our societies either directly, in the form of products and services, or indirectly through the general economic development associated with science-based technologies.

But this is not all. The current status of the life sciences widely transcends economic interests and mere material well-being. New knowledge provided by the life sciences about the organisation and function of the nervous system and about animal and human behaviour – both individual and social – may be of crucial importance in correcting centuries- old prejudices about human nature and social dynamics. As such, the achievements of the life sciences may become instrumental in understanding and finding effective solutions to the most serious problems of our times: personal dissatisfaction, religious fundamentalism, interethnic and intercultural conflicts, terrorism and the ensuing global threat to human survival. In line with the rich European cultural tradition, it may be a vocation for European life sciences, and European science in general, to assume a leading – and pivotal – position in this endeavour.

As a contribution to this goal, what follows is a collection of scientific challenges which, as developed societies, we will have to face in the immediate future, and which could help to shape the European research agenda in the coming years. Most of these issues were recapitulated at the final meeting of the EGLS in Brussels on 28 September 2004 (Workshop on Future Challenges for Life Sciences Research).

  • The world’s food supply and natural resources are under threat from population growth, new diseases and environmental degradation. The ‘gene revolution’ and agricultural biotechnology are powerful and certainly essential tools for generating sustainable agriculture, increased productivity, new markets for plant-derived products, and for making developing countries more independent. At a more domestic level, life science research can help European agriculture tackle its three main challenges: the shift in economic power away from primary producers; the huge changes needed in agricultural infrastructure and systems; and the effect of trade globalisation and liberalisation that could lead to a 20% to 30% cut in EU agricultural output in the very near future. Issues in this field include: weaknesses in the food system and problems with consumer trust; nutrient losses in some soils (and overloading in others), water/air supply and quality; ethical issues, such as animal welfare; food safety, accountability, transparency and quality; and how best to use advances in technology.

  • The debate on genetically modified (GM) plants is far from over. Despite past controversies, Europe cannot give up the hope raised by their potential applications in agriculture, environmental bioremediation and plant-based pharmacology. Should the right scientific and regulatory environment be in place, the fields of GM plant-based food, the environmental clean-up using plants as biocatalysts, or their use as factories for the production of new drugs carry a significant promise as cheaper and more effective vehicles for adding new value to traditional agricultural or forestry sectors.

  • The fact that 70% of the Earth’s biomass and 80% of the oxygen on the planet comes from microorganisms highlights the microbiological dimension of biodiversity and its potential for new products and processes. Like the New World explorers of the 16th and 17th century, microbiologists today find themselves at the edge of unknown territory. It is estimated that only 0.1% to 1% of microorganisms can be cultivated by current techniques, such that even if the amount of information obtained thus far presents a highly complex picture of the microbial world, the vastness of microbial lifestyles remains to be explored. This means that further exploring the microbial world is vital for a host of new medical and environmental applications. The role of microbial biodiversity and the interface between genomics and the environment (including the exploration and exploitation of microbial reactions for environmental purposes) stands out as a major area of growth in the life sciences with evident economic interest.

  • While the ownership of the information present in the human genome (a mere ~30 000 genes) has triggered all social and political alarms, it is shocking that the factual monopoly of the exploration of the global genetic contents of the biosphere (which is yielding ¡Ý 1 million new genes per year) by the USA is being left unchecked by IVF clinics offers a much more likely route to the treatment of serious degenerative diseases. Other ways of overcoming the problem of graft rejection look more promising. Additional areas to watch out for include new sources of oocytes, derived from embryonic stem cell lines, for possible use by sterile adults or homosexual couples who want their own biological children (i.e. generating gametes from their own stem cells lines), as well as using gene therapies and nanotechnologies for improving foetal surgery and medicine.

  • Many future advances in medicine rely on what is now basic research in developmental biology. One key aspect in this respect is the need to understand both early and later stages of development patterns in different species, and to grasp the principles of biological evolution, such as speciation and the common origins of living organisms. This will help to make sense of the biological mechanisms underlying tissue regeneration and other functions which guarantee the stability of organisms throughout their lives. Along the line, more basic research on stem cells (embryonic and adult) – and on regeneration and growth functions – is needed. One intriguing aspect of the development of most living organisms on Earth is that, at one stage of their life, they become parasites or symbionts (i.e. pregnancy, vegetal roots and fungi, intestinal microflora, etc.). This raises the need to boost fundamental research on interactions between organisms and to develop new models for tackling the molecular interplay between the host and its partners.

  • The recent outbreak of SARS and the rampant fear of devastating flu pandemics similar to that in 1918 highlight the fact that the unpredictable risk of infectious diseases affecting the weaker sectors of society (children, ageing citizens) could dominate the international scene. Many gaps remain in science’s understanding of infections, immunology and other areas of biology, and a boost to research efforts is needed to help fight these pathogens. Developing new vaccines is extremely expensive, partly due to the cost of the regulatory requirements. A fundamental goal is to share research findings and expertise, in particular with developing countries, to improve global health. Transdisciplinary research is needed for this, as well as monitoring and early-warning systems for epidemics and the study of reservoirs for infectious diseases. Laboratory models are helpful but more clinical research is needed.

  • The clash of facts regarding the potential benefits of scientific research and the social concerns about their applications results in regulations which frequently involve a high cost. Aspirin may have never been commercialised under today's regulations, let alone the smallpox vaccine and other medical treatments which, having been created at a time when there was more trust in science, are now standard. It is clear that overregulation stifles progress in the life sciences, as well as in the generation of new drugs and the fight against infectious diseases, as researchers and pharmaceutical companies feel deterred by the mounting costs of keeping up with safety demands. The same cost creates an extraordinary burden on the development of GM food. Protecting the consumer, including the consumer’s right to choose, is valuable and necessary, but Europe’s inclination towards over-regulation unduly inhibits innovation and generates extra costs, in particular in the field of GM-food labelling. It has been suggested that the cost of regulation should be made explicit as a percentage of the price – like value-added tax (VAT) – so that consumers would know what they are paying for and can make informed choices.

  • One distinct angle on the challenge of having science and scientific research at the basis of economic development is the correct handling of intellectual property. We have moved, in just a few years, from enjoying a scenario of free interchange of ideas and materials between life science researchers to one of extreme caution to secure any possible rights related to the results of academic investigation. The ongoing paranoia over intellectual property rights often puts in place an unethical barrier to access by developing countries to the benefits of agricultural and health-related biotechnologies. It can also inhibit the emergence of novel applications for seminal (but patented) discoveries, the legal status of which is an effective deterrent for third parties to become interested in the very experimental systems now under legal protection. The molecular revolution in the life sciences, facilitated by unlimited exchanges of vectors, samples and results from the Second World War, up to the early 1980s, may never have the chance of happening again, thus depriving society of many possible benefits. This problem requires careful consideration and creative ways to overcome the present situation.

  • Despite the considerable controversy fuelled by animal rights activists, the reality is that there are few alternatives to animal experimentation in key areas of research linked to human health. Animal models are still needed in the face of new questions raised by the ageing of the population (e.g. degenerative and metabolic problems) and the emergence of new (mostly infectious) diseases. These models will coexist with the birth and subsequent practice of a more integrative second-generation molecular medicine carried out by interdisciplinary research units, effective training programmes for clinicians in molecular biology, and effective means for scientists engaged in basic research to deepen their understanding of medical practice.

  • The recent development of the so-called omics biosciences (genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, metabolomics and the like) is entering a new era in life science research. Our era is witnessing the possibility of having the big pictures of biological phenomena instead of just bits and pieces which are sometimes far from reality. The new methods which shape systems biology allow biological problems to be addressed from a holistic, rather than reductionistic approach, thanks to the import of procedures for analysing complexity (for instance, network theory) from other disciplines such as physics or computer science. For example, we can start entertaining the idea of a trans-kingdom genomics, in which humans are not seen as isolated entities, but share a wider world of molecular interactions with biotic and abiotic partners. Similarly, holistic approaches to farming practices and environmental manage-conversion in a numerical format amenable to massive computing. This requirement will not only oblige researchers to adopt formatted vehicles for describing their results with a coherent nomenclature, but it will also open up fascinating interfaces between structural linguistics and bioinformatics.

  • The growing presence of physics and computing in the life sciences is giving birth to a whole range of approaches to reshape or even create life forms from scratch in order to endow them with predetermined properties (not alien, of course, to countless possible applications), which is generally termed synthetic biology. This area of research integrates, without any barriers, knowledge from traditionally remote areas of information, such as computer science, wet biology, electronic circuitry, and sophisticated chemistry. We risk not gaining a leadership position in such a pivotal field unless massive resources are channelled into its development on our continent. It is becoming increasingly clear that much of our future as sustainable societies will depend on our ability to reduce industrial wastes, to develop cleaner technologies and to consume renewable energy sources. Synthetic biology paves the way to the production of cheap energy (H2), generating electricity from biological processes, and replacing progressively physico-chemical industrial methods with environmentally friendly alternatives. Once again, such a future is not devoid of ethical angles and social debates. But in the meantime, virtually all intellectual property in the field is going to the other side of the Atlantic, thus creating a future scenario of extreme technological dependence which clearly needs to be balanced.

  • The still recent experiences of Nazism and Soviet Communism, which presented themselves as entirely scientific approaches to social organisation, have left us with a certain uneasiness about examining social and cultural trends with the tools of the life sciences. But in reality, the interface between biological sciences and social sciences offers great potential to address a number of fresh challenges facing, in one direction, modern cultures and, in the other direction, biological phenomena with a major population component. Among the emerging areas in this regard are evolutionary theory (biological and cultural, including memetics), cognitive biology, sociobiology, bio-politics and bio-pedagogy, which can play key roles in attempting to solve problems, such as terrorism and other issues related to human nature and social dynamics. In addition, sociologists and biologists benefit mutually from simple models amenable to experimentation on key aspects of social organisation and evolution (microbial bio-films, the emergence of communication vehicles, the set up of hierarchies, etc.).

  • As a final conclusion, the EGLS wishes to remark that education is recognised as the major bottleneck for the future of life sciences research in Europe. Young people’s lack of interest in scientific affairs is recognised as an alarming trait spreading throughout Europe, which requires urgent action. Inspiration to tackle this difficult challenge may come from successful schemes for appealing to young talent (i.e. the EMBL Graduate Student Programme), which are a useful reference for the future. Media plays a pivotal role in educating and stimulating citizens, particularly the young ones, in the fascinating life sciences field. As we all know, it is up to young people to make Europe an example for the sustainable existence of an advanced, informed, just and developed society – and any effort in that direction would be good.

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