Brussels, 13 Feb 2004
The Commission is supporting the establishment of a major new Network of Excellence, involving 25 partners and some 650 junior and senior researchers in 16 countries, that promises to relieve the suffering of Europeans affected by asthma and allergies.
Currently, 80 million adults in Europe suffer from allergies, and it is widely predicted that by 2015, 40 per cent of the European population will fall into that category. Many scientists believe that an increased susceptibility to allergies is the price we pay for living in a cleaner, more disease free society, but with asthma alone responsible for the annual loss of some nine billion workdays in the EU, others believe that Europe must take decisive action.
Hence the decision by the EU to grant 14.4 million euro in funding to the GA2LEN (global allergy and asthma European network) Network of Excellence under the 'food quality and safety' priority of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). 'Europe has been waiting for many years for this day to come, and it is a very important day for all allergic and asthmatic patients in Europe,' said Professor Ulrich Wahn representing the European academy of allergology and clinical immunology, one of the network partners.
The main motivation to establish GA2LEN, according to the network's coordinator Professor Paul van Cauwenberge, from the University of Ghent, Belgium, was to overcome the fragmentation of allergy research in Europe. 'Despite the many projects carried out in Europe to tackle these conditions, up until now there has been absolutely no stimulus for integration,' he told CORDIS News at the GA2LEN launch meeting in Brussels on 12 February.
One of the reasons that international cooperation is so necessary relates to the stark contrast in levels of asthma and allergies within different countries in Europe. Instances of allergies among teenage children vary from 32 per cent in the UK to just 2.6 per cent in Albania. This gives researchers an ideal opportunity to analyse the different environmental factors that influence allergic conditions. 'We have to carry out these studies now, as with time, these figures will begin to level out, as has happened since the reunification of Germany,' explained Professor van Cauwenberge.
Other challenges for the GA2LEN partners include working out why children brought up on farms, or babies fed on unpasteurised fresh milk, are far less likely to develop allergies. 'Is it related to beneficial exposure to bacteria?' asked Professor Peter Burnley from the University of London in the UK, a specialist in epidemiology. 'We need to try and understand this phenomenon in order to deliver benefits to the majority of Europeans who don't live on or near farms.' The partners are also confident they can develop a diagnostic test for allergies based on a sample of saliva or a single teardrop.
Alongside the Commission's financial contribution to the network, more money has already been found from regional, national and commercial sources, raising the total budget to nearly 30 million euro. When asked whether this would be enough to achieve all of the objectives they have set themselves, Professor van Cauwenberge said, simply, 'no'.
But he qualified this statement by saying: 'The funding we have already received from the EU and other sources provides the necessary framework of communications, databanks, mobility and training programmes that we need to begin our work.' He added that although the project is scheduled to run for an initial five years, if the partners are not able to create a durable, long term network far beyond 2009, this would be regarded as a failure.
The full impact of the EU's support for GA2LEN was explained by another partner, Professor Thorsten Zuberbier from Charité in Berlin, Germany: 'This network could not have happened without the catalysing effect of the EU's concept of a European Research Area, and this fact is as important as any financial contribution.'
Indeed, Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, who gave a speech at the launch of the network, said: 'GA2LEN is an excellent example of what the EU is trying to achieve with the concept of a European Research Area. It hasn't overlooked any of the objectives of the new instruments, and it gives me pleasure to witness the creation of a strong new network of research for Europe.'
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