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European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science
Healthy Brain: Healthy Europe Conference
Month of the Brain/Dublin
27 May 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Irish Presidency of the European Council for co-organising this conference on brain research and healthcare.
As you know, we are currently in a crucial phase for European policy-making, as decisions are being taken on the EU's future budget, including for research and innovation.
Research and innovation are key means to achieve the goals of the Europe 2020 strategy: growth, jobs, competitiveness, quality of life and social inclusion.
Brain research and innovation contribute to Europe 2020‘s, aims not just by improving quality of life and helping integrate patients back into their social and working lives, but also by creating jobs and increasing competitiveness through innovative new products such as medicines, diagnostics, nanotechnologies and robotics.
As the title of this conference, ‘Healthy Brain: Healthy Europe’, implies, healthy brains are essential for happy individuals and families, for an efficient work force, for innovative products and services – in short for a healthy European society.
Therefore, investment in brain research is an intelligent investment, especially in times of scares resources, as it can help avoid even higher costs to society in the future.
At present brain-related diseases present one of the biggest societal challenges we are facing, for several reasons.
Firstly – and above all - in terms of personal suffering:
Around 165 million people in Europe are affected every year by some form of brain-related disorder. This means that almost every family in Europe is likely to be affected.
Secondly, in terms of science:
The brain is our most complex organ, and brain research is one of the frontiers of modern science. To quote Dr Francis Collins, the Director of the US National Institutes of Health: “The human brain is the most complicated structure in the known universe”. A better understanding of the brain is desperately needed to accelerate the development of new drugs and better treatments.
Thirdly, in terms of the economy:
In the last few years, several pharmaceutical companies reduced or closed their neurosciences R&D facilities because the development of drugs takes too long, is too expensive and too risky. Fewer drugs are being developed, and at higher cost.
Fourthly, in terms of socioeconomic costs:
The costs generated by brain disorders reached almost 800 billion euro in 2010, a figure that will no doubt increase as our population ages.
And finally, in terms of healthcare:
Many brain disorders are chronic and progressive diseases that require long-term treatment. They're already putting pressure on our healthcare systems.
These are just some of the relevant trends and facts, and they take on a deeper signficance with the real life experiences of people who are living with brain-related disorders.
So, I am particularly pleased that at this conference, we will hear at first hand from the patients themselves, what it actually means to live with a brain disease.
Brain diseases are especially diverse. Let me give three examples that illustrate their broad spectrum:
Today, over 7 million people in Europe are affected by dementias such as Alzheimer's disease - long-term, debilitating and largely untreatable conditions.
Every year, tens of millions of people in the EU, from teenagers to the elderly, will experience at least one episode of mental illness - and they sometimes have to wait years for adequate treatment.
Many rare diseases are brain-related and often start during childhood. The development of therapeutic responses to these diseases is particularly challenging.
Faced with facts like these, ‘business as usual’ is simply not an option.
This is why we decided to designate May 2013 the “European Month of the Brain”, which culminates in this conference.
The aim of this Month is to provide a framework to address the many important issues around brain research and healthcare.
In particular, our goals were to showcase achievements in the area of brain research and healthcare supported by the EU, and outline future research and policy lines.
We also want this campaign to mobilise EU Member States and Associated Countries to better coordinate and optimise the resources they allocate to brain research and healthcare.
And more generally, we wanted the European Month of the Brain to raise public awareness and do our bit to lift some of the taboos surrounding brain health.
And while much of our discussion deservedly focus on medical problems, or disease, acquiring a deeper understanding of the brain helps us pull back the curtain on the mysteries of our very being, our personalities, our motives and desires. Why we act in certain ways and why we don’t.
I think it's particularly important that the Month of the Brain has been open to any stakeholder who wants to organise an awareness- raising event. We've had a wonderful reaction: stakeholders organised over 50 events organised in countries all over Europe. And I'm proud to day that ten of these have happened in Ireland.
One highlight was the conference organised by the European Commission in Brussels on the 14th of May to discuss the "successes and next challenges" of European Brain Research.
Many of the more than 1200 brain research projects funded by the Seventh Framework Programme for Research were presented to delegates.
Through FP7, the European Union has invested close to 2 billion euro in this area since 2007, with new projects selected from the most recent call adding at least another 150 million euro to that total.
These resources have been used in a variety of targeted ways, like a toolbox with different tools for specific needs.
Frontier research, so emblematic and so determinant for brain research, has been largely supported by the European Research Council.
Mobility programmes, with the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships, allowed brain researchers from all over Europe to exchange experiences and to train in the best laboratories.
Collaborative research has been a cornerstone of FP7-supported brain research, in particular for research on mental health disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.
Collaborative research provides the best opportunities for multidisciplinary research, a more effective springboard to new knowledge and innovative applications.
In this context, you are of course aware of the recent announcement made by my colleague, Vice-President Kroes, to support the Human Brain Project, one of the Future and Emerging Technologies Flagships.
This project is coordinated by Prof Henry Markram from Lausanne. It will mobilise up to 1 billion euro from the EU, national and regional sources to better understand how the brain works through building new computing technologies.
Professor Syrota, chairman and CEO of INSERM and member of the external science advisory board of this project, will tell us more about it during his presentation in the third plenary session.
In this context, I am happy that Europe has provided inspiration to the United States, where President Obama recently announced the new BRAIN initiative. This project aims to speed up the development of new technologies for mapping the human brain.
FP7 also encouraged the pharmaceutical industry and public authorities to work more closely together.
This new and innovative type of research collaboration is supported through the Innovative Medicines Initiative Joint Undertaking – or IMI - set up between the European Commission and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations - EFPIA.
Using this model, we are confident that IMI will deliver more efficient drug development processes in order to deliver safer and more efficient medicines to patients.
Brain research benefits directly from IMI, particularly research in the areas of schizophrenia, depression, pain, Alzheimer’s disease and autism, where more than 100 million euro has been committed by FP7 and pharmaceutical companies.
These commitments from the pharmaceutical industry are very encouraging at a time when many companies are down-scaling their research on the central nervous system.
We will hear more about this from Dr Andersen today and from Dr Hunter tomorrow.
Finally, Member States and funding agencies set up new types of collaboration, with the support of the Commission and of FP7.
I will give you two examples:
Other new types of collaboration include the Neuron ERA-NET and the Joint Programming Initiative for Neurodegenerative Diseases - the JPND - that involves 27 countries, including Ireland, which is a very active contributor.
This is the pilot of the larger group of joint programming initiatives that are designed to tackle the grand societal challenges that are simply beyond the scope and resources of any single country.
The JPND has already delivered its Research Strategy – the Member States' common vision of the research needs in neurodegenerative diseases.
This has triggered the development of national strategies on neurodegenerative diseases, and the publication of three joint calls for proposals.
I strongly encourage Member States to maintain their efforts towards the alignment of their national programmes – after all, we will find answers more quickly by putting our heads together!
Tomorrow, Professor Adriana Maggi, Vice-President of the JPND, will explain in more detail the aims and achievements of this initiative.
All these achievements under FP7 are very impressive and encouraging.
However, the recent conference in Brussels also pointed to many new challenges in neuroscience, which still need to be met.
So this conference comes at just the right time, just before the dawn of Horizon 2020, the EU's new funding programme for research and innovation.
Horizon 2020 is structured around the three distinct yet mutually reinforcing pillars of excellent science, industrial leadership, and tackling societal challenges.
One of the major new features is a challenge-based approach that concentrates on creating the knowledge and innovation to solve major problems,
'Health, demographic change and wellbeing' the largest societal challenge addressed by Horizon 2020, will be the natural home for much of the brain research to be supported by Horizon 2020.
However, the challenge-based, cross-sectoral approach of Horizon 2020 is ideal for such a broad, multi-disciplinary area as brain research and there will also be opportunities for brain research in the other two pillars: ‘Excellent science’ and ‘Industrial leadership’.
Horizon 2020 and the European institutions will certainly play their part, but we need all partners to pull together if we really want to improve brain research and healthcare.
This is why the Irish Presidency and the European Commission were keen to ensure a broad mix of stakeholders at this conference: patient organisations and industry, regulatory and funding agencies, representatives of healthcare systems and policy-makers, researchers and charity organisations – they will all have their say.
We need to hear all these voices if we are to achieve the ambitious goals of this conference: to deliver policy recommendations for better brain research and healthcare.
So I would like to invite policy-makers to listen closely to the needs expressed by scientists, patients and industry and to consider how they can be better reflected in their policies.
And we, the policymakers, need you, the stakeholders to tell us what you expect in terms of infrastructures, policies and the regulatory environment in order to encourage innovation and industrial activity in this area.
What can be done to ensure research results lead to good policies and good practice? How can we take better account of the needs of patients throughout the research and innovation cycle? How can we help to destroy the taboos around brain health issues.
I already mentioned that Member States should keep up their efforts to better coordinate and optimise resources by developing national programmes and overarching strategies on brain research and healthcare.
We already have some good examples. Tomorrow, Prof Fabien Calvo, the Deputy Director General of INCA will explain how the French Cancer Plan could serve as inspiration for a national overarching strategy in the area of brain-related diseases.
Especially when research budgets are tight, countries need to work together, learn together and improve together – to get better value, more significant results and bigger impacts.
A beginning has been made in FP7 with IMI, with the Joint Programming Initiative on Neurodegenerative Diseases and with the Neuron ERA-NET, but more work is needed to align national programmes and activities.
We may also have to reflect on how to encourage alternative ways of funding, from private or non-profit sources. The USA's BRAIN initiative, for example, will be supported to a large extent by private foundations.
And we as policy-makers must think about effective ways to create an environment that favours research and innovation and encourages industry investment in drug development.
Regulatory aspects are particularly challenging for some brain-related diseases, for example as regards patients’ consent, but also perceived risks and benefits. We also have to deliberate how to address such issues and how to better take patients’ needs into consideration.
Of course, these challenges aren't just limited to Europe. They're global challenges, so it's a good moment to mention that the European Commission is a member of the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases, which has identified mental health as a priority.
I am also glad to welcome Patrick Kennedy, the co-founder of One Mind for Research as the next speaker, to give us an outlook on a ‘New horizon for brain research and healthcare’.
I wish you all an excellent conference and I am very pleased to give the floor to Mr Kennedy.