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Commission awards €1 million Descartes Prize to research projects in medicine and astrophysics


Today in Munich, the Commission awarded the EU Descartes Prize to two research projects in the fields of medicine and astrophysics. One project advances understanding of multiple sclerosis and offers leads for new drugs. The other project has discovered the origins of gamma ray bursts and is providing insights into star and planet formation. Each €500.000 prize rewards outstanding scientific research through trans-national co-operation. The two prize winners were selected from a shortlist of ten collaborative projects, representing a wide range of fields of scientific research.

“The high standard of submissions clearly demonstrates both the excellence of European science today and the value of European collaboration in the scientific field,” said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. “I welcome the growing interest in the Descartes Prize, which stresses the importance of trans-national co-operation in creating a truly European Research Area (ERA). One of the most important features of the ERA is the greater impact that researchers can make when they work together beyond national borders. Sharing resources and joining forces is key in achieving excellence at EU and international level. This will in turn improve the EU’s competitiveness and quality of life."

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Rewarding excellence

Total entries in 2002 reached 108 - doubling last year’s figure. The winners were selected by the Descartes Grand Jury, chaired by Mr Yves Michot, former President of Aerospatiale Matra, and featuring eminent figures from academia and the public and private sectors. Participants in the ceremony and conference, held at the European Patent Office (EPO), included Mr. Otto Wiesheu, Bavarian Minister for Economy, Transport and Technology, and representatives from the European Commission, EPO, the Max Planck Institute, the Fraunhofer Institute and the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The call for proposals for the 2003 Descartes Prize edition will be published on 17 December 2002.

Tackling Multiple Sclerosis

One of the €500.000 awards went to a project that represents a breakthrough in studying and combating Multiple Sclerosis (MS), the chronic inflammatory degenerative disease of the nervous system affecting at least 350.000 people across Europe. It is an autoimmune disease, in which the body’s own immune system attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms include vision loss, paralysis, numbness, and walking difficulties.

Led by Aarhus University Hospital, (Denmark), in co-operation with other research teams from Denmark, Sweden, the UK and the USA, the project marks significant progress towards understanding the immunological basis of the disease, and provides ideas for the development of new drugs. Through their experiments, the team successfully defined the principal players in the autoimmune attack and explained how a virus triggers the disease.

Explaining the origins of the universe

The other €500,000 award was granted to a project investigating the point of origin of Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs). GRBs were first spotted in 1967 by US military satellites. They emit high-energy radiation and originate from very distant galaxies, where stars form at a phenomenal rate. New evidence supports the theory that bursts accompanied the explosive death of massive stars. Led by the University of Amsterdam, in co-operation with research teams from the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Spain, the UK and Germany, the project provides insight into these giant stellar explosions. This will help astronomers to trace the history of star formations in the universe. The Italian/Dutch satellite BeppoSAX, launched in 1996, with its multi-faceted capabilities, has enabled the team of European scientists to identify GRBs’ place of origin. In addition, the astrophysics project provides first-time confirmation that gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe, second only to the Big Bang. Cosmic bursts originate in very distant galaxies, at the edge of the observable universe (between 5 and 12 billion light years away, assuming that the Universe is 13 billion years old).

Intellectual property rights

Participants also discussed other key issues for research, and in particular the protection of intellectual property rights. European researchers increasingly understand the importance of patenting. In 2001, the European Patent office received 158,200 applications for European patents, which represents an increase of 9% over the previous year.

Fabio Fabbi | European Commission
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