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Biotechnology in Estonia, 2005

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New EU member’s genetic legacy
24.05.2004

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Three years after the Estonian parliament approved the creation of a nation-wide genomics database, the project has overcome an immediate financial setback but is looking for new backers.

The Supervisory Board of the Estonian Genome Project recently announced that it had reached an agreement with EGeen, a US venture capital fund, over funding for the coming year’s data collection activities.

According to reports, a dispute erupted in January when EGeen – a fund set up at the start of the project – asked for a reassignment of the research strategy to reflect “economic realities” and certain priority diseases. However, the Estonians remain adamant the data collection and research should keep its broad focus.

After talks in early April, EGeen signed over the €1.6 million of funds earmarked for 2004’s activities, which include feeding the database with phenotypic and genotypic data samples collected from Estonia’s population of 1.4 million people. With this money, the project will be able to collect genetic and health information from 5 000 donors this year, according to Andres Metspalu, head of the project and professor of biotechnology at Tartu University.

Although the parties agreed to continue negotiations over finance beyond 2004, the Estonian Genome Foundation (EGF) is keen to explore alternative sources of funds for the scheme. In January, the government gave €225 000 to keep the project afloat during the deadlock. And Metspalu told The Scientist he was confident it would chip in additional funds where necessary.

Unique genes worth studying
“The aim of the Estonian Genome Project is to collect data about the health and genes of one million people… [and] we will stick to that aim,” Aire Koik, spokesperson of the EGF, is quoted as saying after the meeting last month. In a similar vein to Iceland, which started a programme in 2002 to tap into its population’s unique genomic history, data from Estonia will be suitable for advancing medicinal chemistry and proteomics capabilities.

Centuries of migration between Estonia – one of the ten new members of the European Union – and its neighbours in Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Germany make this small population of 1.4 million people a veritable melting pot, genetically representative of northern European peoples.

Koik says they have already extensively catalogued two major disease affecting Europeans – hypertension and diabetes – but she insists the project’s emphasis will continue to be a “comprehensive” genomic mapping of Estonia. The European Union has set aside €2.25 billion for research involving the thematic priority ‘Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health’ under its Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

Source: Europa Research

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