Watch out world, Europe is catching up

European ophthalmologists are earning the respect of those envious of the European passion for crossing boundaries in ophthalmology and venturing into the unknown

The small size of our continent has, however, been somewhat of a restricting factor in the past and various drives and initiatives are underway to increase our visibility and cement Europe's position as one of the world's leading innovation centres for ophthalmology.

With the formation of the European Vision Institute (EVI) in Brussels in 2003, steps were being taken in the right direction. The institute was founded by José-Alain Sahel, José Cunha-Vaz, Eberhart Zrenner and Adam Sillito, the association for biomedical research and innovation on light and the image (AIBILI, Coimbra, Portugal), the University Eye Clinic of Tübingen (Germany), and the London Institute of Ophthalmology. The original purpose of the institute, and one that is still enforced today, is to "devise and implement programmes and projects for new therapeutic strategies for eye diseases that are difficult or impossible to be treated presently and to improve the competitiveness of European research by assembling the top institutes together with partners from industry and academia."

The institute will function with shared technical platforms, including an animal facility, transcriptome and proteome analysis, biocomputing, imaging, behavioural testing, electroretinogram (ERG) and patch-clamp studies of ionic channels. The animal research facility, for example, will have a 5,000-rodent capacity with a protected sector for breeding specific-pathogen-free (SPF) animals and a conventional sector for independent experimentation.

The remaining area will be evenly shared amongst academic sector laboratories - including the institute's founding team, National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) research Unit 592, directed by Sahel - and the industrial sector.

Fovea Pharmaceuticals, created in June 2005, and led by Bernard Gilly has raised €20.5 million in a first round of private placement with top-tier European investors (Sofinnova, Abingworth, The Wellcome Trust, GIMV and CA Private Equity) marking the first major investment towards the achievement of its goal; to discover, develop and commercialize innovative breakthrough drugs for the treatment of retinal diseases

Research initiatives

Initiatives to boost research in Europe are already well under way, thanks to the determination and the enthusiasm of ophthalmology groups across Europe. The Fifth Research and Development Framework Programme (FP5, 1998-2002) devoted several research networks to ophthalmology (including PRORET, PRO-AGE-RET, RETRAINET and EUREYE). The first two of these projects - "Neuroprotection of the retina" and "Protection of the retina during aging" - were coordinated by Sahel's INSERM team, then located in Strasbourg.