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BLOG: Looking forward - which biomedical topics will be in the sweet spot of European funding?

February 03 2016

Where does Europe want to go in 2016 and 2017 with medical sciences and medical technology? What future is foreseen for healthcare? Looking at the new call topics in Horizon 2020, some trends can be identified. There are five specific fields that will be in the sweet spot of EC funding. The rest is bottom-up. What does this mean for your organisation? Are you 'in the money' in one of the five fields, or do you have a better fit with the broader bottom-up calls? 

Priority number 1: eHealth and eMedicine

You will not have missed that Europe foresees a big future for digitalised healthcare. Not surprising considering the aging population, in parallel to rapidly increasing healthcare spending. In 2016 and 2017, there will be large budgets for ICT solutions for health. This ranges from telemedicine - e.g. Skyping with your doctor - towards a range of Apps that monitor your daily activities. Besides that, health applications for virtual reality, for example in gamification settings, are stimulated to emerge broadly. This might translate into an exciting visit at the physiotherapist, where you emerge running in a forest in the Scottish highlands, facilitated by special glasses. Then Europe takes another angle, by encouraging digital drug development, through personalised computer models and in-silico trials. For the future this could translate into less, or more effective use of animal models and human beings for drug testing. Could a computer model indeed be predictive for drug safety and efficacy? Europe wants to find out.

Priority number 2: Power of the cell

The strength of biological systems seems endless, as also recognised by policy makers in Brussels. Why develop synthetic drugs and materials while nature provides perfect examples ways of doing it? Since we now learn to mimic natural systems, there is increasing focus on medical applications of regenerative medicine and cell technologies. These topics are fuelled by EC investments in 2016 and 2017. The opportunities of regenerative medicine range from durably resetting specific cells to stop auto-immune activities, towards regrowth of entire organs. Then there is a plethora of cell technologies that can be exploited to effectively kill cancer cells, to construct biological medicine or to transport molecules to the cell nucleus. Since the potential seems endless, Europe has decided to allocate significant sums to these developments.      

Priority number 3: Precision medicine

The period of one-size-fits-all medicine is coming to an end. Many antibody drugs have reached blockbuster sales, being subscribed to most patients with a specific disease. This worked well for many but not for all. Currently, in almost each subfield of drug development it is recognised that patients are actually less alike than thought before, in terms of disease heterogeneity. Therefore it is not surprising that biomarker-based diagnostics and diagnostic medical devices receive more and more attention from Horizon 2020. Europe seeks for technology platforms that can stratify patients into responders and non-responders based on molecular or cellular profiles, or detailed medical images. In the future each individual patient will be thoroughly screened after which a matching therapy, if available, will be subscribed. Theoretically this will largely increase the number of people that receive the right treatment early-on, preventing unnecessary side effects and related overspending.

Priority number 4: Rare diseases

You will probably know only a few, but there are thousands of rare diseases such as ALS, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and Huntington. Previously largely ignored, Europe now places rare diseases high on the list of important diseases to tackle. In 2015 already tens of millions have been allocated to orphan drug development. In the coming years this will be continued, which is good news for  patients and orphan drug developers. Interestingly, much budget is available for clinical trials. Not only is there a call for development, also the characterisation of rare diseases is high on the agenda. Before we can actually treat them, we have to understand and be able to diagnose them - is the line of thinking.

Priority number 5:  Blue-ocean nanomedicine

There are already a number of nano-cancer drugs on the market, and many more in clinical pipelines of pharmaceutical companies. The idea is simple, by formulating medicinal compounds in very small particles, and optionally functionalising these with molecules that help to find the desired target, the efficacy and safety profile of many drugs can be improved. Plus, molecules that would otherwise be directly broken down, such as small RNAs, can now be transported in large doses to their site of action. Other examples include nanotechnologies that can be used for visualising where drugs go in a body, or imaging regenerative processes. Besides that, there are hundreds of other possibilities. The European Commission believes that these promises will eventually capitalise in the form of highly effective medicine. Considering the high number of cancer nanomedicine in development, the EC is steering towards applications in new unexplored areas, such as nanoformulation of biologicals or for other diseases than cancer.   

Bottom-up: opportunities for everything else

What if your research does not belong to the five priorities? Consider the technology-wide calls for innovative projects. For truly breakthrough research and developments, in any field, there is budget available. For early stage, visionary and high risk research, applicants can go to the Future Emerging Technologies programme. Companies that are already close to market with disruptive, high impact products can apply for funding under the Fast Track to Innovation scheme. For everything in between, there is the Eurostars programme which funds exiting preclinical development projects. Surely there are additional funding options, but that requires a deeper search tailored to your research and development activities.

Funding of infrastructure

Last but not least, Europe will invest heavily in 2016 and 2017 in European scale infrastructures. In the biomedical field, there is a call for vaccine infrastructures, aiming to create an environment for boosting the development of new vaccines. There is also a call for building facilities for animal disease and infectiology. Since many emerging infectious diseases are spread by animals, this is a matter of European security. The same is true for diseases transmitted by insects - Europe likes to give rise to integrated facilities to develop effective control measures targeting insect vectors. Finally, Europe will continue to invest in research infrastructures for replacement, reduction and refinement of animal testing.

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Jochem Bossenbroek, MSc