For years, leading scientists have been demanding a considerable increase in the German genome research budget. Now somebody is listening. Germany has decided to invest an additional 350 million DM to stimulate research in functional genomics. On the occasion of the human genome's publication earlier this month, the German government presented plans for the creation of a National Genome Research Network with the aim of significantly boosting research into the genetic origins of cancer, infections, and cardiovascular diseases.
The freshly completed genome map provides biologists with a Rosetta Stone for studying human biology and hopefully will enable medical researchers to begin to unravel the mechanisms of inherited diseases. Now that the full sequence is known, the emphasis has shifted from sequencing to determining the function of individual genes. However, such long-term research projects require long-term budgeting and more flexibility, scientists warn. And although the government emphasizes the fact that public spending on genome research quadrupled since 1998, the now available 870 million DM for genome research is still tiny compared to the $1 billion invested annually in the United States. "Although it is not enough, this funding comes as a highly welcome and valuable stimulus," says Detlef Ganten, president of the Helmholtz Association of Germany's National Research Centers (HGF).
The extra money for the genome network is part of the 1.8 billion DM research and education windfall profit that the German government received from the auction of Universal Mobile Telecommunications System frequencies to private companies last year. Its bulk part will flow into four of the 16 Helmholtz Centers: Heidelberg's DKFZ Cancer Research Center, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), Berlin; the GBF Biotechnology Center in Braunschweig, and Munich's GSF Environmental Health Research Center. As the scientific core of the new network, their main task will be systematic genome analysis with the goal of understanding the sequence and functions of the genes residing therein.
However, the aims of treating inherited diseases and developing drugs with fewer side effects for individual patients require more than a close interaction of basic research institutions such as the Helmholtz Centers. To fully exploit the knowledge of the human genome sequence, it will also be essential to study the genome's entire protein complement. Consequently, proteomics and bioinformatics are both supported as cross-section technologies within the genome network. Similarly significant is the incorporation of clinical research and also biotech industry as, for example, at the research campus Berlin Buch. Prototypical for the idea of the genome network, the campus Berlin Buch hosts two research clinics of Humboldt University next to the Max Delbrück Center, plus about 40 young companies in a Biotechnology Park.
Ganten, who is also the MDC's scientific director, points out how much extra funding the industry cooperation attract to the campus. Assuming that one company with just one patent would attract 5 million DM in the first phase of capitalization, 10 million to 15 million in the second phase, and up to 50 million in the third, the campus' 40 start-ups represent about 1 billion to 2 billion DM in private capital within the next 5 years. And, after years of heavily and nearly exclusively investing in U.S. genome research, the industry's participation in designing the new funding program may indicate a trend reversal, Ganten hopes.
The most important resource for accomplishing a goal as challenging as a competitive national research network is of course not money but people, Ganten tells Next Wave. In collaboration with the Berlin universities, the MDC already set up graduate colleges and training courses on molecular medicine, attracting and training the next generation of scientists. Similarly, new study programs and training facilities are developed in the vicinity of Heidelberg's DKFZ, in Munich's Environmental Health Research Center, and soon also at Braunschweig.
Although it may still be a long way to go until Germany reaches the "top of genome research" as proclaimed by the German science minister on the occasion of presenting the network plans, Ganten is convinced that the national genome network is an investment that will pay handsome dividends to Germany's scientific community. "The word will spread," Ganten believes, "If this becomes more than straw fire and we succeed in truly setting new accents, we will certainly be able to attract excellent young scientists from all over the world."