Universities and research institutes in Switzerland are pooling their resources in an effort to position the country as a world leader in systems biology.

In what the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) describes as the biggest thematically defined research initiative in the country’s recent history, six universities and three research institutes have teamed up with the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne to form a joint research consortium, SystemsX.ch. The new partnership will fund a range of projects in the systems biology field, with the SNSF taking on a supervisory role as a quality control filter for the initiative.

As the Foundation notes, systems biology is regarded as the next major driver of biological research after genomics. “Current technologies allow biologists to spell all the letters in the genetic material, however, they offer very little in the way of deciphering this complex code,” it comments.

Yet systems biology is expensive, calling for the development and maintenance of elaborate technical platforms, the SNSF observes. Not only are these platforms beyond the financial capability of any single university or research institute, but they rely on the successful interaction of scientists from multiple disciplines including biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science and engineering.

It was factors such as these that shaped the SystemsX.ch collaboration between the aforementioned federal institutes, the Universities of Basle, Berne, Lausanne, Fribourg, Geneva and Zurich, the Paul Scherrer Institute, the Friedrich Miescher Institute and the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics. Already 18 project proposals have been submitted for funding by SystemsX.ch (the deadline for applications is the end of this year), while projects currently supported by systems biology grants from the partners in the initiative must also reapply for funding under the new scheme.

The available funds for larger Research Technology and Development (RTD) projects are around SwFr1-5 million per year. SystemsX.ch will also support some 40 Interdisciplinary PhD (IPhD) and 40 Interdisciplinary Pilot (IPP) projects, the latter geared to encouraging cross-disciplinary interaction between researchers from different institutions and academic backgrounds by enabling them to collaborate on a high-risk project for a year.

A special SNSF panel has been set up to evaluate and periodically review all of the applications for RTD and IPhD projects. In addition to six members from the Swiss National Science Council, this panel will include internationally recognised experts from various disciplines crucial to systems biology. All strategic and operational business decisions and transactions, including the administration and distribution of SNSF-approved grants, will be left to SystemsX.ch.

SwFr400 funding
Total funding for systems biology research in Switzerland could reach SwFr400 million (€240 million) for 2008-2011, the SNSF says. In its autumn session the Swiss parliament allocated SwFr200 million (subject to annual budget decisions) for research in the field over that period. Of this sum, SwFr100 million will flow into systems biology projects at universities and research institutes that are partners in the SystemsX.ch initiative, the SNSF notes.

However, the money will only be distributed if these institutions commit an equal amount to the research project in question – i.e., an extra SwFr100 million in total. On top of that, the Swiss parliament approved a SwFr100 million budget for the ETH Zurich Department for Biosystems Science and Engineering in Basle, whose work ties in with the systems biology effort.

If the SwFr400 million can be achieved, it will put Switzerland ahead of other European countries in terms of its systems biology investment relative to population size, the SNSF points out. The UK has invested £88 million (SwFr214 million) in systems biology research since 2004 while the federal government in Germany plans to spend about 37 million euros a year between 2008 and 2011.