The University of Tartu has recently received €60 million in funding from the European Commission and the Estonian state to develop two international centres of excellence. The funding will be distributed over the next six years. It will be used to establish research consortia in the fields of digitalized synthetic biology and personalized medicine, bringing a set of exciting opportunities to the region of South Estonia.
Boosting Bioindustry and Data-Based Health Services
The consortium DigiBio, led by Professor Mart Loog of Molecular Systems Biology, aims to combine synthetic biology with digital technologies to facilitate the big data-driven design of cells for the bio-industry, boosting both research and the development of new businesses based on industrial biotechnology. The centre is developed in cooperation with the Tallinn University of Technology and the Technical University of Denmark and received €15 million from the European Commission, with another €15 million invested by the Estonian state.
According to Loog, the modern technological capacity to collect biological data has increased data volumes many times faster than they can be analysed and used in research. Such big data include, for instance, genome sequences or data on genome engineering and synthesis. Synthetic biology (SynBio) is a multidisciplinary area of research that seeks to create new biological parts, devices, and systems or redesign systems that are already found in nature. For example, microorganisms are redesigned to produce chemicals and biomaterials to help us break our dependence on petrochemicals.
“To achieve a quality leap both in the research in this field and in the bioindustry, we need to accelerate cell design by combining biology experiments producing big data with IT tools that can process big data, learn from them and create designs for new cells,” explained Loog.
The centre will upgrade the Estonian Centre for Biosustainability by setting up a digitalised and robot-assisted laboratory unit for building cell systems – a biofoundry – linked to IT units for software development, big data processing and machine learning. This approach is similar to all engineering, which uses design-build-test-learn (DBTL) cycles.
“This is basically a highly accelerated biological evolution, enhanced by rational design through IT and the engineering cycle,” explained Loog. The second major activity of the centre will be industrial biotechnology and the development of big data-related IT start-ups. The aim is to combine Estonia’s world-class IT sector with the scientific excellence in synthetic biology available here. The new business accelerator to be created alongside the centre will help cutting-edge research to reach the economy.
An integrated approach to personalised medicine
The consortium on personalised medicine, led by Mait Metspalu, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Tartu, will establish a personalised medicine R&D centre of international excellence in Estonia in collaboration with Tartu University Hospital.
It will bring together expertise in genetics, IT, clinical medicine, public health and socio-economic analyses to explore all stages of implementing personalised medicine in an integrated way. The project will involve research, evaluating the utility and cost-effectiveness of personalised healthcare services through clinical trials, making electronic health records more usable and supporting innovation.
As a result of the centre’s work, Estonia could become one of the pioneers in implementing personalised medicine in Europe. Professor Joel Starkopf, Head of Research and Development at Tartu University Hospital, believes that this project is the best way to implement the mission of the Tartu University Hospital to put science at the service of patients. “The aim is to achieve the best possible integration of frontier research in genetics with our ever-developing clinical practice for the benefit of our patients,” said Starkopf.
According to Metspalu, the Estonian Biobank’s data has allowed important scientific discoveries about the links between genes and health. Yet, we are still several steps away from implementing genetics-based health services. This will require closer collaboration between different research disciplines, from clinical medicine and public health to social and data sciences.
“Since its establishment, the Estonian Biobank has aimed to advance Estonian healthcare by developing personalised medicine. The investment received for the centre is an acknowledgement to the university for years of research and infrastructure development on the one hand, and to the Estonian state for building digital databases, services and legal framework enabling the development of personalised medicine on the other,” said Metspalu.
The creation of the region’s most powerful centre of expertise will allow studying all stages of implementing personalised medicine through collaboration between different scientific disciplines. “While the main role of the University of Tartu is to develop scientific methods and new data tools, Tartu University Hospital will conduct clinical trials to study and validate applications developed by research partners in collaboration with patients,” said Sander Pajusalu, Head of the Genetics and Personalized Medicine Clinic at Tartu University Hospital.
In addition to clinical trials, it is also important to assess the impact of personalised medicine services on society, the economy and public health. During the project, the consortium aims to make people’s health data in Estonia more digitally usable, fostering innovation in healthcare.
Luring the opportunities
The University of Tartu’s new centres of excellence present a unique opportunity for international investors to get involved in cutting-edge research and development in the fields of digitalised synthetic biology and personalised medicine.
The centres will also foster the development of new biotech-related IT start-ups and the bioindustry, providing a platform for cross-sectoral collaboration and growth. The centres will promote research excellence and boost the development of digitalised bioindustry and data-based health services, making Estonia a pioneer in implementing personalised medicine in Europe.
With the support of the broad coalition of international partners, the centres will also provide excellent opportunities for the local biotech research and business sectors to support the goals of the European Green Deal.
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