Five years after Luxembourg’s biomedicine initiative was launched it’s time to look at the past, present and future of the endeavour

Crossing borders

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 24.10.2014

Collaboration. If we would have to encapsulate Luxembourg’s systems biomedicine initiative in one word, it would definitely be collaboration. Working together with academic colleagues in the US and Japan, translating knowledge into Luxembourg’s hospitals, creating links with business partners: the idea of cooperation is omnipresent.

But where does the idea to turn Luxembourg into an important player in the field of systems biomedicine come from? What is Luxembourg’s Centre for System Biomedicine working on? And what are its future prospects? Five years after the initiative was launched it’s time to look at the past, present and future of this endeavour1.

The Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) opened its doors in 2011. The idea first came up in 2007 in the context of Luxembourg’s foresight exercise and Pricewaterhousecooper’s recommendation to focus on bio, health and personalised medicine. As there was simply no knowledge in fundamental bioscience research available in Luxembourg at that time, PWC also advised to work together with world leading experts and institutes. There were two obvious candidates: Hiraoki Kitano from the Systems Biology Institute in Tokyo and Leroy Hood from the Institute of Systems Biology (ISB) in Seattle. They are the “founding fathers” of systems biology and both set up their institute at the beginning of the new millennium. Especially Hood and his collaborators in the ISB have been fundamental in the establishment of the LCSB. Not only did they provide cutting edge knowledge to kick-start the new Luxembourg Centre – in exchange for some major funds from Luxembourg – but they knew the ideal person to serve as its founding director: Rudi Balling.

With the LCSB being a pioneering initiative on the local and global scene, Rudi Balling compares the experience of its set-up with driving a racecar while building it at the same time2. Coming from Germany with a background in reproductive toxicology and genetics, Balling is good in building new institutes. After his experience as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in the USA, he was in charge of the German Human Genome Project and established a Max Planck and Helmholtz institute. Just when he got a little bored with running such big research centers, this new challenge in Luxembourg was offered to him. He took the lead, and attracted a considerable, international staff in a short time while also building them a home: the new LCSB building, also called the House of Biomedicine, the first settlement at the new Belval campus of the Cité des Sciences.

Balling has been in charge of finding a clear focus for the institute. In view of demographic change and ensuing future needs for wellbeing, he identified neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer, ALS, Huntington and Parkinson’s disease as areas of particular interest. He decided to focus especially on the latter through his conversation with a Luxembourgish doctor with a passion for Parkinson’s: Nico Diederich, who works at the Centre hospitalier de Luxembourg and is now also a member of LCSB.

While all systems biology and medicine institutes are characterised by integration through collaboration, the LCSB has a unique collaborative approach: international relations have been key in its set-up, while it also collaborates locally – aiming to bring together scientific research in the university with medical care in hospitals and contribute to Luxembourg’s transformation towards a knowledge based economy.

It is not biology but physics that is often seen as the most collaborative field in science, with the Manhattan Project – responsible for developing the atomic bomb during World War II – and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) based in Geneva as iconic examples3. Today, CERN involves around 30 countries, se­veral thousand employees, 600 universities and has the current record of number of authors of a single research paper: just above 3 000.

Despite this dominance of physics, early biologists were part of the first collaborations that explored the earth and its living species. Moreover, biology is increasingly seen as collaborative research area, especially since the launch of Human Genome Project and its followers, such as the European flagship project on the Human Brain. Apart from the proliferation of large-scale projects, a current trend in the efforts to foster scientific collaboration in the life sciences is the establishment of integrative centres, designed to facilitate collaboration by putting everyone together and providing room for exchange. As such, they are promoting the integration of disparate theories, methods, and data across disciplines, specialties, and professional sectors4.

The LCSB is an example of such an integrative center, and its collaborations also go beyond the academic realm. Connecting scientists with doctors and their patients in hospitals, creating links between basic research and clinical research. This is often called translational medicine, which facilitates the transfer of knowledge from “from bench to bedside” and vice-versa. Moreover, the LCSB is part of academic-industrial collaborations.

Consequently the LCSB is not only integrating the international and the local levels through collaboration, but is also involved in a double translation of its research: towards the hospitals and toward industry.

While these different forms of collaboration have been crucial for the establishment of the LCSB, studies show how it is far from easy to set up collaborations and make them work. Aside from the efforts required to coordinate the work, collaborations raise several important questions, including the trust and tensions between collaborators, and its effects on scientific productivity. Translational medicine has its own types of problems: it can be time-consuming (it takes many years from the discovery of a new molecule to its therapeutical application) and expensive (the development of a molecule costs millions of euros and only about five per cent of new molecules eventually become marketable products). In addition, collaborations often reveal important discontinuities between biology and medicine – which can be technical, disciplinary, organisational, cultural, ethical and political. In the case of university-industry linkages, issues about intellectual property, secrecy, and academic freedom become particularly salient.

A frequently shared assumption is that scientific collaborations are essentially unbiased and politically neutral, but numerous studies have shown that this is hardly the case. The Manhattan project is an illustration of the entanglement of researchers and the military. Sociological studies of the field of high-energy physics show that gender and power issues are frequent among science communities. The Human Genome Project called for reflection on the ethical, legal, and social issues inherent in the project. In general, debates about power, authorship and ownership are frequent in large collaborations, as are disputes about the primacy of some scientific fields over others.

In its short life span the LCSB has now grown into a full-blown Centre with 182 researchers. It has already made important scientific contributions, notably the production of a map that gives an overview of all available knowledge on Parkinson’s disease and the characterisation of a so-called tumour suppressor gene. However, the question is: what will happen with the LCSB in the future? With the first round of funding ending, the financial situation remains to be clarified.

This raises the issue of the sustainability of such new, collaborative centers. Funding is in many cases given for a restricted period of time, while the building of new institutes requires years. A scientist at CERN explains: “what you need is a long breath. And this is sometimes a problem if you discuss things with politicians. They are used to work with horizons of three to five years. And they expect a return on investment which is more or less immediate. But if I take the example of the World Wide Web you need at least ten to fifteen years between the first basic idea and the first industrial product”5. This also goes for institutes in the realm of systems biology/medicine.

While in the US and Europe numerous centers have been set up over the last decade, some of them are already losing visibility due to sharp reduction in funding. While it is sometimes argued that a successful centre should be able to function on competitive research grants after five years of institutional funding, this is not feasible. To some extent, terminating essential institutional funding and the subsequent decline of institutes make the previous investments worthless too.

As Hood pointed with regard to the ISB that received various types of core funding: “It’s a much longer term kind of thing and five or six years isn’t enough. If I look at where we were six years ago... just the additional six years that we’ve had: we’re in a very different place than we were then”6. Consequently, to stop investing in something that is just starting to bloom is a difficult issue. Anyone who has been involved in collaborations knows: it takes a long time to build them while it’s easy to break them down.

1 This article is based on a larger research project on the emergence of systems biology funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Morgan Meyer, Niki Vermeulen
© 2023 d’Lëtzebuerger Land