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Izmir Biomedicine and Genome Center – a model for the region

 

Largest public research investment in the history of Turkey – with strong EMBO ties

 

Turkey is an emerging country that has accelerated its investment in science and technology over the last decades. Between 1980 and 2015 the number of Turkish universities increased almost tenfold, reaching 180. Life science research in Turkey is conducted mainly at state universities. An important alternative to the public higher education institutions are foundation universities, typically set up by wealthy businessmen. Large basic research institutes are on the rise – yet at a slow pace. In relation to its gross domestic product, Turkey still spends less than half as much on research as the EU average. The dream of creating a large-scale, internationally competitive life science institute in Turkey was born many years ago, but only realized when the Izmir Biomedicine and Genome Center (iBG-izmir) was created.

 

 With a size of more than 20,000 square meters, the centre is designed to host 32 research groups and educate 150 graduate students

 

Located on the campus of Dokuz Eylül University in Izmir – Turkey’s third largest city – the iBG-izmir was launched in September. The institute is the largest public research investment in the history of the Republic of Turkey. The opening ceremony was attended by the Turkish Minister of Science and other government representatives. It also featured a series of scientific presentations including a talk from Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt. In his speech he said that the creation of the institute is a “fantastic opportunity” for talented Turkish scientists to return to their country.

 

“Both EMBO and EMBL played important roles in shaping the path to the creation of the institute,” said Mehmet Öztürk, founding director and its driving force. Maria Leptin, EMBO Director, and Iain Mattai, EMBL Director General, currently serve on the Scientific Advisory Committee of iBG-izmir. Öztürk, who was elected EMBO Member in 1994, consulted EMBO and EMBL directors over the years, seeking advice on how to plan and structure the emerging institute. “EMBO has been following the development of science in Turkey since 1993, when the country joined the EMBC, the funding body of EMBO,” said Deputy Director Gerlind Wallon in her speech at the opening ceremony. To date, twenty scientists in Turkey have been supported by EMBO Installation Grants, created to attract scientists to set up their independent laboratories in participating member states.

 

A cultural bridge

 

iBG-izmir, designed as a multidisciplinary cluster, is striving to become a national and regional hub for biomedical research, innovation, service and education in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. Located between the Middle East, Western Asia and Europe, it is predestined to function as a cultural bridge, where scientists can meet and cooperate. “We designed the institute as a model for the entire region,” says  Öztürk. “Time will tell whether our idea gains ground.”

 

The director’s close association with EMBO and INSERM in France allowed him to establish strong ties with European institutes and life science researchers and to facilitate the institute’s European integration. His association with The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), an academy working for the advancement of science in developing countries, offered him insights into the specific problems of emerging countries.

 

Currently, the major funding of iBG-izmir comes from Dokuz Eylül University, the Ministry of Development and TÜBITAK, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. The iBG-izmir is candidate for a centre of excellence, recognized by the Ministry of Development of Turkey – a status that will secure funding. In the next few months, the government will make a decision on which centres to fund; the iBG is considered a strong candidate. The institute is expected to strongly focus on innovation, high-tech product development, and high quality services for both public and private sectors.

 

The centre has already attracted a number of young talents from around the world. Nearly twenty of the planned 32 independent basic and translational research groups have been formed and are already working in the institute. Two of them are headed by EMBO Installation Grantees, Günes Özhan and Gerhard Wingender. The groups are organized as multidisciplinary clusters connecting researchers and clinicians – a structure that is unique for the Turkish research landscape. They cover focus areas such as targeted molecular therapy, stem cell and gene therapy, immunotherapy, and genomics of rare diseases. Their research is supported by state-of-the-art core facilities for biobanking, in vivo and in vitro imaging, genomics and bioinformatics, and a vivarium for rodent, zebra fish, and fly animal models, to name just a few.

 

Turkey is now trying to lure its talented natives back home – as well as to attract foreign scientists. TÜBITAK has developed several programmes to increase the mobility of researchers within the Horizon 2020 framework. The EMBO Installation Grants are also financed by TÜBITAK – in collaboration with EMBO. The iBG-izmir has already attracted a number of young scientists through these programmes. Now, the centre is looking to recruit specialists in genomics and bioinformatics.