Brussels, 08 Mar 2006
Modern research in genetics and molecular biology offers new opportunities for improving public health and for helping the authorities tackle common diseases. It is important to integrate – responsibly and effectively – genome-based knowledge and technologies into public health policy and national health services. A new European network, called PHGEN, hopes to clarify the main issues that this new field of science and medicine raises for public health authorities, Europe-wide.
One of the first challenges that PHGEN (Public Health Genomics European Network) will face is to come up with a robust definition and to identify the main priorities for this relatively new field of investigation. For example, what exactly is public health genomics and how does it differ from public health genetics? A special work group – one of three being set up in the first year of the 36-month project – will tackle this very question.
The network aims to develop links with relevant Community programmes and with national and regional initiatives. It also plans to collect and exchange information about best practices to help with the preparation of Community policies, strategies and measures. And it will create sustainable systems enabling Member States to coordinate their health-related activities in the field of public health genetics and genomics.
Through formal meetings, special work groups and virtual discussions, the network will seek answers to several other questions, as well. For example, it will address the main challenges linked to current national practices for applying genetic testing.
Around 75 associates, partners and observers attended PHGEN's first meeting, held last month. The kick-off event was chaired by the network leader Dr Helmut Brand of the Institute of Public Health (NRW) in Bielefeld, Germany. He commented on the importance of EU-funding for networks of this nature.
"It is time to set the course to implement genome-based knowledge into public health," said Dr Brand. "Dealing with these questions on a European level gives us a better chance to learn from each other. With the Commission supporting this network, we have a direct reference to the policy level and can better link with other networks relevant to this field, such as EuroGentest or EUnetHTA."
Exceptions to the rule
With the help of nearly €1 million in Commission funding from the Community Action in Public Health call for proposals, PHGEN will examine carefully and openly with the key stakeholders – scientists, public authorities and other interested observers – the major priorities and issues in public health genomics. A special work group will report its findings, which should inform policy-making and regulations in this field.
Another work group will also tackle the specific issue of 'genetic exceptionalism', which questions whether genome-based medical records should be treated any differently than the protection offered to standard medical information. And, if so, what questions this might raise about the current levels of protection in national systems.
A third work group to be set up in the first year will go back to the basics in trying to find functional, durable definitions for this new field: definitions which practitioners, stakeholders and policy-makers will be able to apply consistently. For example, in a Commission call for proposals, the term 'genetic determinants' was applied to the field. However, according to the PHGEN team, not everyone was familiar with the term or its intended meaning in this context.
'Life Science, Genomics and Biotechnology for Health' is also a thematic priority in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research. On the Research DG's dedicated website for this theme it says: "Selecting genomics and biotechnology for health as one of the priority themes … is in line with a major political and strategic choice [that] the Union made recently in meeting the challenges of the new knowledge-based economy. This is also a response to the expectations of society, at global as well as European level."