Over the next six years, a consortium led by the University of Tartu and Tartu University Hospital will establish a personalised medicine research and development centre of international excellence in Estonia. The project is supported by the European Commission with €15 million, with the Estonian state investing the same amount.
According to Mait Metspalu, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Tartu, the data of the Estonian Biobank has allowed making important scientific discoveries about the links between genes and health, yet we are still several steps away from implementing genetics-based health services. This will require closer collaboration between different research disciplines, from clinical medicine and public health to social and data sciences.
“Since its establishment, the Estonian Biobank has aimed to advance Estonian healthcare by developing personalised medicine. The investment received for the centre is an acknowledgement to the university for years of research and infrastructure development on the one hand, and to the Estonian state for building digital databases, services and legal framework enabling the development of personalised medicine on the other,” Metspalu said.
The creation of the region’s most powerful centre of expertise will allow studying all stages of implementing personalised medicine through collaboration between different scientific disciplines. “While the main role of the University of Tartu is to develop scientific methods and new data tools, Tartu University Hospital will conduct clinical trials to study and validate applications developed by research partners in collaboration with patients,” said Sander Pajusalu, Head of the Genetics and Personalized Medicine Clinic at Tartu University Hospital. In addition to clinical trials, it is also important to assess the impact of personalised medicine services on society, the economy and public health.
During the project, the consortium aims to make people’s health data in Estonia more digitally usable, fostering innovation in healthcare. Jaak Vilo, Professor of Bioinformatics at the University of Tartu, considers Estonia a pioneer in creating an electronic health records system, yet some of the data is still unstructured and in free-text format. “We need a data sharing and analysis system that can be used for research, but also for creating personalised medicine tools and clinical guidelines. In this way, we will enable better use of electronic health records for research and treatment alike,” added Vilo. A well-organised health data infrastructure and Estonia’s strong start-up environment will boost health technology startups, which in turn will accelerate the flow of research into society.
One of the project’s objectives is to sequence the full genome of 10,000 Estonian residents, which is necessary to provide personalised medicine services to the entire Estonian population. Previous research projects have focused on testing personalised medicine tools on a smaller population with a more homogeneous genetic background. “We need to sequence more full genomes to broaden our reach and include genetic information from Estonian residents of diverse backgrounds,” said Metspalu. The diverse dataset will also support the European Union’s 1+ Million Genomes initiative, which will boost innovation in healthcare across Europe.
The R&D activities at the centre involve the Institute of Genomics, the Institute of Computer Science, the Institute of Clinical Medicine, the Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health, and the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies of the University of Tartu. External partners are the University of Helsinki and the Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the best institutions developing personalised medicine in Europe. Partners can share experiences and engage in closer cooperation to move personalised medicine forward.
Teaming for Excellence is a funding action under Horizon Europe, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, which supports cooperation between European research institutions to improve research and innovation capacity and increase the competitiveness of the region’s economy. The project will start in 2023 and run for six years.