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by Maria Fiala and Maria Bürgermeister

Austria is not necessarily among those countries regarded as leading locations in the global biotechnology industry. However, the country has made continuing efforts to improve its position in one of the most important technologies and industries of the future.  A cornerstone of these activities is GEN-AU - the Austrian Genome Research Program. The program, financed and organised by the Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture, covers a widespread variety of research activities. GEN-AU's focus is medical biotechnology, but there are also projects in agricultural and animal genomics. Several programs targeting the improved networking and organisation of biotechnological research round out the GEN-AU plan.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Having reached almost exactly €100 million within nine years, the public funding of GEN-AU is keeping pace with efforts in other European countries. The money goes primarily to university institutes and to several private enterprises. Austrian companies and international group subsidiaries are also involved. In these cases, GEN-AU covers only a part of total project costs; a substantial share must be borne by the companies themselves. Estimates suggest that another €6.36 million, which is equivalent to about 21% of the total project costs, will be spent on research in GEN-AU projects by the partner companies in the first three years.

For the most part, GEN-AU projects are organised as cooperative projects comprising multiple individual projects which involve several institutes and companies as project partners. There are twelve major project topics:

New Insights into how Cancer Cells Spread
The cooperation of leading basic and clinical research institutes with a pharmaceutical company represents a unique synergistic approach in the area of cancer research in Austria. The diversity of experience and infrastructure is channelled into a network in order to achieve significant progress towards the individual treatment of cancer patients.

Understanding Diseases of Fat Metabolism
Genome research in the area of disease of lipid metabolism enters educational and research fields in Austria. The variety of the six Austrian cooperating partners and the dovetailing of each of their specialized technologies are ideal prerequisites for learning how better to understand diseases of civilization and how to develop effective therapies.

Setting Sights on DNA and Protein Molecules
Ultra-sensitive methods will be combined to characterize molecules using chip technology in this project. The "Ultra-sensitive Proteomics and Genomics" project of GEN-AU uses modern DNA and protein chip technology for this purpose in combination with highly sensitive analytical equipment. A method is to be developed that will use only one one-hundredth of the amount of sample required by old measurement methods.

The Organization of Genetic Information
Five groups of scientists from Vienna are cooperating to understand the organizing principle of the mouse genome and to define a corresponding epigenetic map. The goal is to find out in which regions of the genome genes and groups of genes are active during normal and abnormal development (for example, cancer) and the roles they play.

Bioinformatics Integration Network (BIN)
BIN aims to substantially improve availability of data and the results of biotech research in Austria through bioinformatics services and development of new analysing methods, as well as training programs.

Austrian Proteomics Platform (APP)
Key activities include designing new protocols and stationary phases for protein and peptide separation and developing bioinformatics methods for data evaluation.

Tissue Banks as a Source for Genome Research
The aim of this program is to establish one of the world's most comprehensive tissue banks containing diseased and healthy human tissue, blood samples and cell lines.

Proteomics in Tumor Biology
This project deals with tumors in epithelial tissue. Its purpose is to investigate the formation and metastasis of tumors and find new targets for cancer medications.

Reducing Mycotoxins in Foods
The goal of this project is to find the genes that determine the virulence of the Fusarium graminearum, a fungus which attacks grains and corn and is potentially hazardous to health.

Cancer in Children
Gene fusions in bone tumors and the most common form of leukemia in children are illustrated and described in each case, and specific biological inhibitors will be developed. The project has the potential to improve cancer diagnoses and therapies for children and adolescents.

Functional Analysis Using Mutant Fish
With a new screen-out method, researchers create a large number of mutants having specific gene defects. These defects are identified by isolating gene fragments from mutant animals and performing a special test in bacterial cells.

Cancer in the Hematopoietic (Blood-Forming) System
Aiming for new insights into the progression and treatment of cancer of the blood and lymph nodes, this project uses a new mouse model to describe in more detail the function of a very specific lipid phosphatase, one of the cell's tools which plays a role in normal blood cell development and in the development of cancer of the hematopoietic (blood-forming) system.

Although the variety of projects is already remarkably extensive, the program is still open to new topics. Two further calls for applications for projects will be made in 2004 and 2007. There are few restrictions for potential participants: research has to be conducted in Austria, the project has to deal with basic research and not with directly commercial issues, and private companies have to commit themselves to co-financing the research activities. The decision regarding the acceptance of projects is in the hands of a scientific advisory board consisting of high ranking experts.

GEN-AU wants to achieve more than new patents and formulas. Genome research touches on a variety of critical ethical and social issues. Within the accompanying program ELSA, social scientists deal with ethical, legal and social aspects of genome research in general and GEN-AU project topics specifically. For the first phase of ELSA, six projects will be funded with a budget of more than €1.5 million.

"However, money alone doesn't do the research," stresses the Minister for Education, Science and Culture, Elisabeth Gehrer. Therefore, GEN-AU invented different channels for education:

• The target group of the "GEN-AU Summer School" are pupils. This project, started in 2003 with approximately 30 kids, was very successful and will be continued in an extended version.

• Young researchers find their scholarships in the "GEN-AU Mobility Program." PostDocs and Ph.D. students can apply for a max. one year fellowship to any required host institution in the world to get expertise in a research field needed in a GEN-AU project.

• To build up personnel resources for the next phase of GEN-AU, a "GEN-AU Outgoing International Fellowship" is in preparation. Highly motivated PostDocs in the fields of functional genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics will get the opportunity to spend two years at one of California's most well known universities or research centers. Some American PostDocs will also be invited to acquire expertise in one of the GEN-AU laboratories in Austria. This research exchange program between Austria and the USA will be launched in spring 2004.

The Austrian Genome Research Program GEN-AU is a program of the future, which will serve as an engine for R&D, economy and education. It wants to be considered as a platform for sustainable partnership between all groups interested in the responsible development of genome research in Austria and for overall social prosperity.

Maria Bürgermeister, M.Sc. and Katja Fiala, M.A. are the project managers of GEN-AU and can be reached at the email address This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Management and contact for scientists:
Program Office GEN-AU
Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture
A-1014 Vienna, Minoritenplatz 5
Tel.: +43-1-53120-6213, Fax.: +43-1-53120-81-6213
Web: http://www.gen-au.at{/access}