Estonia might be compact, yet it shines bright on the research and educational scene. Its most prominent university, located in Tartu, is now approaching 500 years in history and continues to attract top scholars and more than 14,000 students from around the world.
With over 61 spin-off companies, the University of Tartu (UT) constantly contributes to Estonia’s knowledge-based economy. For example, fuel cells developed by the scientists of the University of Tartu power the AuveTech autonomous hydrogen bus.
Soon, UT’s impact across Nordic is going to be even bigger. In early 2023, the University of Tartu received €60 million in funding from the European Commission and the Estonian state to develop two international centres of excellence, focusing on bioengineering and personalised medicine. The funding will be distributed over the next six years.
On September 11th, the projects were kicked in with the event at the University of Tartu assembly hall, where researchers and esteemed international partner institutions unveiled their plans. Opened by UT rector Toomas Asser, the gathering also featured luminaries such as Kristina Kallas, Minister of Education and Research (via video), and representatives of the European Commission, including Signe Ratso, Deputy Director-General for Research and Innovation.
So what’s coming for the Estonian science?
Researching the future
The keynote speeches section was opened by Professor Mart Loog, the leader of the DigiBio project and Molecular Systems Biology Professor at the University of Tartu, who outlined the centre’s exciting plans for the next six years.
Goals are more than ambitious. The first step will be establishing a new Institute of Bioengineering in Tartu. International and public-private cooperation is also part of the vision as the partner centre from Denmark, the Novo Nordisk Foundation Centre for Biosustainability, is joining the initiative alongside Tallinn University of Technology.
Our common aim is to understand the logic of genome engineering to create synthetic biology solutions for bio-based economy and biomedicine, said Loog. Science easily transfers into practical applications in Estonia, he emphasized.
“For example, the wood industry is still one of the most important in Estonia, yet close to 60% of its by-products go to waste. We want to change that, and companies like ÄIO are already exploring ways to achieve that, creating alternative oils and fats”, he said.
Additionally, one of the goals of the new institute is to recruit young group leaders recently trained abroad to establish their laboratories here. The philosophy of the DigiBio project is based on the idea of digitalisation of bioengineering and applying computational methods and machine learning to analyse genetically engineered cells using an automated experimental biofoundry platform based on the model of the Danish partners.
Building the Estonian Biofoundry will be accomplished in the coming years. This will be a digitalised and robot-assisted laboratory unit for building cell systems, linked to IT units for software development, big data processing and machine learning.
Making health personalised
Science is not always distant and confined to specialized journals. Regarding health, it is essential to bring scientific advancements closer to people. Since Estonia is building a first-ever personalised state, well-being is a big part. But what does this mean?
Nowadays, it is not such a challenge any more to live long but to live an active and healthy life. “At the University of Tartu, we address this challenge by focusing on the person and one’s genetic background and social and environmental effects. If there are no technologies, we will make them”, explained Mait Metspalu, who leads the Precision Medicine and Artificial Intelligence Centre.
This centre will aim to develop and implement innovative digital health solutions tailored to individual patients. Individuals differ genetically in their predisposition to diseases, and that should be taken into account.
Thankfully, Estonia has already made significant progress in e-health and electronic medical records. Now, the goal is to utilize this data in combination with artificial intelligence algorithms to provide personalised treatment options and preventive measures. And more data will be needed: currently, Estonian Biobank has 211,000 participants, or close to 20% of the adult population. But only a fraction of those are fully sequenced, and further advances are possible.
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