The 10-year "Technology Initiative - Molecular Imaging" looks like an attempt to consolidate all the talents from five of Germany's leading pharmaceutical and medical technology companies: Bayer Schering Pharma (pharmaceuticals), Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma (pharmaceuticals), Siemens Medical Solutions (imaging systems and healthcare IT), Karl Storz (endoscopy) and Carl Zeiss (optical imaging).

Big money is in play here. Collectively, the partners have committed to stump up €750 million on the development of advanced molecular imaging modalities, while the Federal Ministry of Research and Education (BMBF) has set aside €150 million to fund cooperative R&D projects that involve at least one academic partner. It's early days, but according to Erich Reinhardt, president and CEO of Siemens Medical Solutions, the hope is that molecular in vivo imaging - closely meshed with in vitro technology and the latest IT innovation - will lead to earlier, more individualized and therefore more effective diagnosis and therapy.

Imaging and opportunity

Deconstructed, molecular imaging is all about visualizing pathological processes at the cellular level - often long before disease symptoms become clinically apparent. Over the past decade, for example, PET and latterly PET/CT (which localizes metabolic activity in an anatomical framework) have proved their diagnostic credentials in clinical oncology, both for pinpointing disease and for monitoring the efficacy or otherwise of drug, radiation and combination therapies. Elsewhere, PET has carved out a clinical niche in brain imaging, where it can help to diagnose Parkinson's disease and distinguish various types of dementia.

Further disruptive innovation is in the works. Siemens Medical, one of the lead industry partners in Technology Initiative - Molecular Imaging, is among the foremost pioneers of PET/MRI, a dual-modality approach that brings together the exceptional soft-tissue contrast and high specificity of MRI with PET's sensitivity in assessing physiological and metabolic states. Scientists expect that PET/MRI will open up new ways to understand the pathologies and progression of various neurological disorders like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, epilepsy, depression and schizophrenia. Similarly, in stroke patients, the technique holds the promise of allowing physicians to study which brain tissues might ultimately be salvageable.

All told, Germany's molecular imaging programme looks well placed to catalyse multidisciplinary teams working across the sciences, medicine and engineering (as well as industry and academia). Bayer Schering Pharma, for example, is a leading developer of imaging contrast media and is currently working on advanced PET tracers for oncological and neurological applications. That remit fits neatly with Siemens' position in medical imaging systems and software. Similarly, given the involvement of Carl Zeiss and Karl Storz, the partners would appear to be well placed to exploit advances in biomedical optics such as optical coherence tomography, near-infrared fluorescence imaging and 3D multiphoton endoscopy.

Time will tell if Germany's commitment to molecular imaging is money well spent. For their part, the BMBF and its industry collaborators are shooting for the win-win outcome in which improved quality of care is matched by lower costs associated with the delivery of that care.