Post-COVID recovery: Flanders invests heavily in KU Leuven research infrastructure

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Els Henckaerts, hoogleraar geneeskundeEls Henckaerts, hoogleraar geneeskunde

No fewer than six projects of KU Leuven will receive substantial financial support as part of the post-COVID recovery plan of the Flemish Government, called ’Flemish Resilience’. The plan focuses on sustainability, digitisation and health, all areas in which our University is very strong.

Flemish Minister for Innovation Hilde Crevits announced that the Flemish Government will divide 120 million amongst new infrastructure projects throughout Flanders. The investment should reinforce Flanders as an innovative region and fits into the Flemish Resilience recovery plan.

No fewer than six projects of KU Leuven have been recognised, amounting to a total investment of more than 31 million euros. The money will be spent over the course of the next five years. An overview.

A European knowledge centre for gene therapy

Gene therapy is a revolutionary way to cure diseases that are, until now, incurable, by inserting specific genes in the body cells of patients. In the last decade, gene therapy has evolved from an academic peculiarity to an actual therapy, with hundreds of ongoing clinical studies and, since a few years, an authorised medicine. The majority of these products is based on an innocent virus, the adeno-associated virus (AAV). However, the development and production of such drugs is very complex and requires specific expertise, which is currently less available in Europe than in the US.

KU Leuven does have extensive expertise in the field of research and development of gene therapy products. Together with Handl Therapeutics, originally a spin-off of KU Leuven and now part of the pharmaceutical company UCB, the Laboratory of Viral Cell Biology & Therapeutics set up an innovative project on gene therapy for a number of neurodegenerative diseases, the first clinical studies of which will soon start.

Given the enormous potential of gene therapy and the leading role that KU Leuven can play on a European level, a knowledge centre will be established. Fundamental aspects of gene therapy will be studied collaboratively there, and promising programmes will be supported on their way from fundamental research to authorised medicines. It is KU Leuven’s ambition to become the reference centre for the development of gene therapy products in Europe.

’With this funding, we want to expand our knowledge centre and strengthen our infrastructure, says Els Henckaerts, professor of medicine. ’We also want to stimulate the development of gene therapies in Flanders and Europe, among other things, through innovative research to tackle problems in the various processes. But above all, this support enables us to build up unprecedented expertise, including the human capital that is crucial to translate fundamental research into life-saving medicines.’

Project manager: Els Henckaerts
Department: Laboratory of Viral Cell Biology & Therapeutics
Amount allocated: 9.2 million euros

From woody biomass to chemical raw material

If the chemical industry wants to become more sustainable, it must free itself from its dependence on fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas. This is possible by using biomass from green waste flows (wood waste, plant residues...), a source that not only avoids net CO2 emissions but, above all, does not constitute a threat to food production.

But before this biomass can be used as an alternative chemical raw material, a thorough conversion is needed first. The BioCon project is setting up a research platform to refine woody biomass into chemical raw materials. The focus will be on lignin, the biological component that makes trees and plants rigid. Chemists within BioCon will investigate how lignin can be optimally isolated from the biomass, purified and stabilised.

"With this project, we want to demonstrate that the extraction of lignin from green waste flows, such as plant residues and waste wood, and its conversion into chemical raw materials isn’t only circular, but also technologically and economically feasible", says full professor of bioengineering Bert Sels. "The chemical industry is a very investment intensive industry; a successful innovation usually entails quite some preliminary research. With this pilot project, we want to take lignin conversion beyond the laboratory phase."

Department: Sustainable Catalysis and Engineering
Project manager: Bert Sels
Amount allocated: 8.2 million euros

Building a climate-neutral Flanders

By 2030, the European Union wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% and by 2050, it intends to reach climate neutrality. That is a big challenge for the built environment, especially in Flanders, where the building stock is one of the oldest and most wasteful of energy in Europe. Urban areas need to be reinterpreted and adjusted, and buildings require extensive renovation. Advanced prefabrication of building components has a key role to play in this, enabling automation and digitisation.

There is a lot of knowledge and expertise available both in academia and in the corporate sector to take up this challenge. Unfortunately, major revolutions are yet to happen because optimisations often concentrate on separate disciplines.

KU Leuven will realise a pilot building where innovative, replicable and commercially viable solutions for climate-neutral construction are investigated, optimised and demonstrated. It will be a sort of research and demonstration hub for the construction of the future.

’This project is fundamentally multidisciplinary: in addition to an intense cooperation between the different civil engineering disciplines, we also involve other disciplines like architecture, energy research, material sciences, electrotechnology and humanities and social sciences, says Dirk Saelens, full professor of engineering science. "Systems thinking is a crucial aspect in this, allowing all those disciplines and techniques to come together properly in a building and realise comfort in a climate-neutral and user-friendly manner. Extensive digitisation and a data-driven approach will help to achieve that.’

Department: Department of Civil Engineering
Project managers: Dirk Saelens, Staf Roels
Amount allocated: 8 million euros

Screening, identification and production of human antibodies

Antibodies are proteins produced by our immune system to kill foreign intruders like viruses and bacteria or to eliminate tumour cells. Since most antibodies have a very specific structure and functioning, it is important to screen them as accurately as possible so they can be used as a therapy for cancer, infectious or autoimmune diseases.

Two years ago, MabMine was founded at KU Leuven, a research platform using a very innovative approach to screen, identify and isolate human B cells - immune cells that produce target-specific antibodies. The platform recently proved its worth by isolating different antibodies in people who had been infected with COVID-19. In the next five years, MabMine will continue to grow as a sustainable catalyst for the development of new therapies and diagnostic tools based on human antibodies.

’This additional funding is crucial to take our research to the next level’, say Nick Geukens, innovation manager at KU Leuven, and Paul Declerck, full professor of pharmaceutical sciences. We form a valorisation link between academic research and biotechnological and pharmaceutical R & D in Flanders by developing a pipeline for innovative drugs based on human antibodies. Especially in valorisation projects, it is essential to move up a gear at a certain point. This way, newly developed technologies can be prepared to be used in the pharmaceutical industry so they can create added value for society.’

Department: PharmAbs (The KU Leuven Antibody Centre)
Project managers: Paul Declerck and Nick Geukens
Amount allocated: 1.9 million euros

A molecular snapshot of cells in tumour tissue

With diseases such as cancer, it is a matter of analysing the tumour tissue as well as possible so that the most appropriate treatment can be prescribed. The effectiveness of tailor-made cancer treatments consequently depends largely on the quality of molecular tissue analyses. These analyses can be further improved by carrying out a full molecular screening of a sample of the tumour that is as representative as possible. Ideally, as many molecules as possible that are produced by the cells are examined simultaneously. These molecules can indicate which genes, proteins or metabolic pathways in the tumour cells are functioning abnormally strong or weak. In sum, they can tell what exactly is going wrong in the tumour.

Such a molecular screening of many thousands of cells generates a vast amount of data, which is why this ’multiomics’ approach is already highly digitised. KU Leuven now wants to expand this technological infrastructure within the Prismo project with very advanced microscopes that can take ’molecular snapshots’ of cells and tissues and with extensive automation and enhanced data processing and storage.

’Nowadays, we have the technology not only to identify but also to see the many thousands of molecules that a cell produces, going from DNA to RNA, proteins, lipids and metabolites, in an intact tissue context’, says Johan Van Lint, professor of medicine. ’Thanks to this funding, we can expand the infrastructure to make even more precise analyses possible and to substantially increase the number of tissue samples examined. We want to be able to quickly make a detailed ’portrait’ of all individual cells in a tumour (not only of cancer cells but also of the immune cells present, for example) and discover why a certain therapy works for one patient and not for another. In the long term, this can greatly contribute to thorough precision medicine for cancer, through cooperations with the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors.’

Project manager: Johan Van Lint
Department: Leuven Cancer Institute
Amount allocated: 1.9 million euros

Towards a circular bioeconomy

The Leuven ’transition centre’ TRANSfarm scales up sustainable, circular innovations in the bioeconomy from lab expertise to pilot scale. This way, the researchers of TRANSfarm support scientists of KU Leuven involved in basic research. Together, they try to put new findings into practice.

The research concerns food, animal feed, green chemistry, green energy and bio-based (raw) materials with a minimal impact on climate, water, soil and biodiversity. In sum: circular bioeconomy.
TRANSfarm has unique knowledge of and expertise in the scaling-up of fundamental innovations to the practical level. Moreover, TRANSfram adopts a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach, as researchers look for connections between different scale-up projects. 

’The journey from the lab to the practical implementation is usually very long’, says TRANSfarm manager Wouter Merckx. ’With this funding, we can step it up a few notches. So much so that we will be able to scale up innovations almost simultaneously with the basic research phase.’

Project manager: Wouter Merckx
Department: SET Group
Amount allocated: 1.9 million euros