Leading medical researchers gathered in Sweden late last week to develop a European Union (EU)-wide strategy to tackle neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases.

This is the first of the new EU Joint Programming Initiatives (JPI) designed to address the “grand challenges” facing Europe which cannot be tackled effectively and efficiently by any one EU member state acting alone.

Through this JPI, “the best European medical researchers will be working together and pooling resources to help the millions of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases,” said the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn. “By making research more efficient and avoiding duplication of work, the Joint Programme will increase the prospects of real progress in preventing and treating these diseases. The lessons learned will then be used to inform research efforts in other areas,” she added.

In 2006, it was estimated that neurodegenerative diseases cost EU health services approximately 72 billion euros to treat. Existing treatments for such conditions are limited and, in the main, they treat the symptoms rather than addressing the cause.

24 EU member states will be working together on the initiative, and it will be supported by a European Commission contribution of nearly 2 million euros.

Also late last week, opening a conference at the European Parliament on “health ageing” organized by the Dutch Federation of University Medical Centres, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn stated that the pharmaceutical industry is “already investing heavily” in new therapies aimed at alleviating neurodegenerative diseases, osteoporosis and other ageing-related conditions.

“It is our duty and also my personal challenge to create a critical mass of research and innovation at an EU level developing new and key enabling technologies which will support healthy ageing,” she told delegates. “Market opportunities for high-technology companies are already enormous and are growing fast, but for the moment they are only exploited by a very small group of specialized companies in niche sectors.”

The ageing population will bring challenges but also significant growth in business opportunities, said the Commissioner, adding that her goal is to create a favourable environment for the participation of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in more projects which support healthy ageing. “SMEs are key drivers of innovation and job creation, in particular in the field of medical technologies,” she said.

- Meantime, the Commission is also contributing 21 million euros to two new four-year research projects on cancer, which are part of an international research effort coordinated since 2007 by the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC).

The new projects, the Breast Cancer Somatic Genetics Study (BASIS) and Cancer Genomics of the Kidney (CAGEKID), are expected to receive 10.5 million euros each from the EU. Involving 27 research institutes from 10 countries throughout Europe and the USA, they will focus on unlocking the genetic code of breast cancer - the most common class of cancer diagnosed in women worldwide with over one million cases diagnosed annually, and kidney cancer, for which Europe has the highest global incidence rates.

The data obtained by ECGC researchers will be made available to the whole entire research community as speedily as possible.