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University of Tartu spearheads excellence in digital bioengineering and personalised medicine

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On September 11th, the University of Tartu, Estonia’s leading research institution, will launch two internationally influential projects to bring new quality to life sciences, biotechnology and personalised medicine. The European Commission supports the projects with €30 million over six years, with another €30 million invested by the Estonian state.

The plan to curb climate change and mitigate its effects by reducing the consumption of fossil raw materials, reducing the environmental impact of agriculture and fostering the growth of the circular economy will increasingly focus efforts on bioengineering. It is a line of research that investigates processes at the cellular level and applies genetic engineering to design cells with useful functions. Engineered cells can be used for environmentally sustainable bioproduction of essential chemical building blocks for polymers or ingredients of pharmaceutical, cosmetics and food industries, for example. Such technologies significantly reduce our need for petrochemicals and mitigate these industries’ environmental impact. New bioproduction methods also make it possible to valorise currently low-value waste, be it waste gases or biomass left over from the food and forestry industries.

The Centre for Digitalised Bioengineering (DigiBio), being developed in parallel with a newly established Institute of Bioengineering at the University of Tartu, applies digitisation, big data analysis and machine learning methods for genetic designs of such cells. It will offer a new quality for life science research and the bio-industry, significantly accelerating the discovery of important cellular mutations and the creation of designer cells with specific functions.

Together with partners from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability of the Technical University of Denmark and Tallinn Technical University, an automated experimental unit for the digitalised design and engineering of cells – a biofoundry – will be established in Tartu, which will be unique in the Baltic region. According to Mart Loog, Professor of Molecular Systems Biology at the University of Tartu and the project leader, the Danish partners have a unique experience in the digitisation of biology, making the opportunity to learn from them invaluable. The aim is to connect the Estonian biofoundry to the international Global Biofoundry Alliance network to benefit from international experience and open new horizons for the local research community and the biotech industry. “Engineering biology using such a high-throughput approach helps us to meet global challenges ranging from sustainable bioeconomy to fighting pandemics and diseases,” said Loog.

International centre of excellence in personalised medicine

Thanks to advances in science and technology, the field of medicine is going through a breakthrough, which can be summed up by the term ‘personalised medicine’. Increasingly, there are opportunities to look at health and disease more individually than ever before, considering a person’s genetic background, lifestyle, and environmental influences, among other factors. Largely thanks to the valuable database of the Tartu University Estonian Biobank, which over 200,000 Estonians have joined, Estonia has become one of the most advanced countries in personalised medicine. A national IT infrastructure for personalised medicine, unique in the world, has also recently been completed, enabling the secure integration of genetic data into doctors’ daily work.

Progress so far has been noted. The University of Tartu and Tartu University Hospital recently received a historic research grant from the European Commission to establish an international research and development centre for personalised medicine in Estonia. The creation of the region’s most influential centre of expertise will allow taking the next steps to bring genetics-based healthcare services into practice.

The work of the consortium establishing the centre is led by Professor Mait Metspalu, Director of the University of Tartu Institute of Genomics, according to whom the centre will enable closer collaboration between different scientific disciplines, from clinical medicine and public health to social and data sciences to study all stages of the implementation of personalised medicine. The consortium’s research will include developing new scientific methods, tools, and clinical trials to study and validate the created applications in cooperation with patients. It is also important to assess the impact of personalised medicine services on society, the economy and public health.

Digital usability of health data

Another aim of the consortium is to improve the digital usability of people’s health data in Estonia. Even though Estonia is a strong e-state, some electronic data is still unstructured and in a free-text format. Besides enabling better use of data for prevention and treatment, a well-organised health data infrastructure will also boost health technology start-ups, which in turn will accelerate the flow of research into society.

Partners include, in addition to local researchers and experts, the University of Helsinki and the Erasmus University Medical Center, which are among Europe’s leading centres for personalised medicine. This means the consortium can use the world’s top expertise and share its experiences and discoveries internationally.

Both projects are supported by the Teaming for Excellence action under the sub-programme “Widening participation and spreading excellence” of the European Commission’s research and innovation funding programme Horizon Europe. The programme supports collaborative projects between European research institutions to deliver cutting-edge research and better integrate it into society and the economy.

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