Plans to build a 71-million-euro biotech centre announced in Prague

The Academy of Sciences has announced that two of its institutes, the Institute of Experimental Medicine and the Institute of Molecular Genetics, are planning to open a joint biotechnology research centre just outside Prague in a village called Vestec. The ambitious project is to combine their research in order to improve the diagnosis and treatment of serious diseases. The 71-million-euro campus will be equipped with state of the art labs and employ 400 first-rate specialists.

I first spoke to Dr Peter Sebo of the Institute of Molecular Genetics and asked him about the part of his institute in the project.

"The part that we are responsible for is oriented towards molecular biotechnologies. The purpose of this project is to build a new research capacity focused mainly on protein research, on issues related to the structure, function and use of proteins and to the production of recombinant proteins as therapeutic and diagnostic tools. There will be a very strong component of cutting-edge basic research, with people very much focused on molecular and cellular biology and on the identification and characterisation of fundamental mechanism of how the human cells work.

"There will also be a very strong component of the institute of people who will be professionals in designing new expression and production strategies for interesting target therapeutic molecules, proteins, and on methods. They will be performing research on the methods to produce these kinds of recombinant proteins for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes."

How are you hoping to find enough qualified researchers and staff in five years time?

"Well, we are already working hard to identify the potential leaders which will be working in the institute in five years time. We really need to start quite early. As soon as we have a definitive confirmation that the funding for the project will be allocated we will open international calls for positions of group leaders in the new research centres.

"I really deeply believe that already now the situation in the Czech Republic is very attractive for talented, motivated young people of Czech origin and also of foreign origin that would like to reintegrate the Czech Republic and come and join this centre of excellence on a European level in molecular biotechnology research. So I'm very optimistic and I think this country still has a large potential for growth. I'm really optimistic that we are going to find very good people to lead the new groups in the new biotech research centre."

One important thing: once opened, how will the centre be financed?

"Obviously, the infrastructure, I mean the buildings, instruments, the cutting-edge technologies which are going to be implemented, will be funded by the European Commission from the structural and regional development funds but the running costs, obviously, need to be covered. The state budget of the Czech Republic will only cover maybe 30-40 percent of this cost, from the institutional side.

"We are going to identify and recruit group leaders who will have a very strong potential to raise funds on the soft side, especially from specifically designed research programmes, like grant programmes of the Czech Republic, for example the National Programme of Research No 3. And obviously, a large proportion of the funding will be coming from European framework programme grants, now the 7th and, in the future, the 8th framework programme.

"We also need to and will generate a lot of funding through collaboration with the biotechnology industry in the Czech Republic and also abroad and with pharmaceutical companies abroad on the basis of sponsored research agreement by selling know-how and intellectual property in the later stages, of course. Also, a very strong component will be performing teaching activities in terms of training employees of biotech and pharmaceutical companies in our facilities and involving them in our research on the basis of sponsored research agreement contract and this kind of activities."

Photo: European Commission
If everything is approved in Brussels, what will be the timetable?

"We are working hard to be able to submit the project to the European Commission by the end of 2007. Then we will enter the negotiation phase with the European Commission. We hope to be able to conclude the negotiation somewhere in the summer or early autumn of 2008 and the first construction work should start at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009 and we are hoping and striving to open the research centre somewhere at the end of 2010 or beginning of 2011."

Professor Eva Sykova is the head of the Institute of Experimental Medicine, a European Centre of Excellence, which is going to be the second partner in the planned biotechnology research centre.

"Our institute will have its own building for basic and strategic research for 200 people. We want it to be an international research centre, with many other countries collaborating. We already work on many projects within the 6th Framework Programme and we are planning other ones as part of the 7th Framework Programme. We would also like to construct another building there which will be a business incubator and a transfer centre from basic research to clinical research. We are the Institute of Experimental Medicine which means that we would like to develop products which can have an impact on the treatment of patients with various diseases."

Which specific diseases will you eventually be able to treat thanks to the new biotechnology centre?

"We now very much concentrate on cell therapy and biomaterials for regenerative medicine. We have some fields which are really very advanced in our institute, such as replacement of cartilages. We are also quite famous in brain research so we would like to come up with procedures that could treat brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. But it is not only these two. In our centre, we also provide cellular skin covers for patients with burn injuries. Also, there are a lot of applications in dermatology where we could use stem cells.

"But we should realise that stem cell therapy is nothing new, really, we are already treating thousands of children who have leukaemia with cell therapy. Cartilage and bone replacement is quite straightforward, in fact, we are only improving some of these technologies but diseases like diabetes or heart attack and brain and spinal cord injuries are still waiting for this type of therapy."

Whose idea was it originally to establish such a biotechnology centre?

"This is difficult to say because a lot of people would like to have a biotechnology centre. There is another one in Brno and another one in South Bohemia. It's obvious for an institute like ours - many institutes in Germany are thinking in the same way. We cannot go further if we don't have a big centre where all methods are together and where you can also perform the applied research."