A research network for one and all


By Maurice Campagna

(From "Horizons" no. 110 September 2016)​​​

​Developments in the life sciences affect every one of us – and on a very intimate level. Personalised medicine is changing both our approach to sickness and health, and our understanding of them. In basic research and clinical research projects at ETH Zurich, EPFL and Swiss universities and hospitals, huge volumes of personal data are generated. Information on a genetic level flows together with clinical data and information from biobanks. But how can we evaluate all this information securely and meaningfully, so that each individual patient can profit from improved preventive measures, drugs and therapies? How can the data be made available to society so that – for example – rare diseases can be detected earlier without disproportionate costs? The excellent research conducted at Switzerland's research institutions is constantly bringing forth new results and new methods that make our country stand out on the international scene. But the challenges that face researchers in our tertiary institutions and hospitals are immense: they have to be able to analyse their data meaningfully. Data exchange and interoperability are essential for progress to be made, and they have to be guaranteed. Data storage has to be secure, data quality cannot suffer in the process, and ownership rights have to be clarified.

The Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences are committed to illuminating the topic of personal health from different perspectives and with scientific transparency. The Swiss Personal Health Network was formed in 2014, in which all the important stakeholders are represented. This network is intended to ensure that progress made in the molecular life sciences and in IT is made accessible to our universities and industry, where it should help to promote research and innovation. The aim is to prevent researchers from duplicating the efforts of others, and to avoid the dead-ends of regional data graveyards. Instead, we want to provide the basic data needed for future cutting-edge research and a better health provision in Switzerland.

Institutions and top researchers alike have recognised the leading role played by the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMW). In collaboration with the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB), the SAMW will be responsible for overall coordination of this network from 2017 to 2020. The knowledge of all the academies and competence centres can be brought together within the framework of this national funding initiative. The expertise of this network encompassing 100,000 people has precisely this responsibility: bringing projects and stakeholders together across existing boundaries to form a single network. Especially with such a 'personal' topic as personalised medicine, we have to be able to count on the total of our collective knowledge.

Since 1 January 2016, Maurice Campagna has been the President of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences.