KU Leuven: Flanders invests heavily in Leuven research infrastructure

Earlier , Minister of Innovation Hilde Crevits announced that the Flemish government is distributing a total of 120 million euros over new infrastructure projects throughout Flanders. The investment is intended to strengthen Flanders as an innovative region and fits within the Flemish Resilience Recovery Plan.

No fewer than six KU Leuven projects were awarded funding, representing a total investment of more than 31 million euros. The money will be spent over the next five years. An overview.

A European knowledge center for gene therapy
Gene therapy is a revolutionary way to cure hitherto incurable diseases by introducing specific genes into the cells of patients. In the last decade, gene therapy has evolved from an academic quirk to a real therapy, with hundreds of ongoing clinical studies and an approved drug for several years now. The majority of these products are based on a harmless virus, the adeno-associated virus (AAV). However, developing and manufacturing such drugs is extremely complex and requires specific expertise, which is currently less prominent in Europe than in the US.

Els Henckaerts, professor of medicine
KU Leuven already has extensive expertise in the field of research and development of gene therapy products. For example, the Lab for Viral Cell Biology and Therapeutics, in collaboration with Handl Therapeutics, originally a KU Leuven spin-off and now part of the pharmaceutical company UCB, has set up an innovative project on gene therapy for a number of neurodegenerative disorders, the first clinical studies of which will be launched in the near future. will start.

In view of the enormous potential of gene therapy and the pioneering role that KU Leuven can play at European level, a real knowledge center will be set up. It will jointly study fundamental aspects of gene therapy and support promising programs on the path of fundamental research into approved drugs. It is the ambition of KU Leuven to become the reference center for the development of gene therapy products in Europe.

‘With this funding we want to further expand our knowledge center and strengthen our infrastructure,’ says Els Henckaerts, professor of medicine. ‘In addition, we also want to stimulate the development of gene therapies in Flanders and Europe, including through innovative research to tackle bottlenecks in the various processes. But above all, thanks to this support, we can build up an unprecedented expertise, including the human capital that is so crucial in translating basic research into life-saving medicines.’

Department: Laboratory of Viral Cell Biology & Therapeutics
P​​​​​​Project leader: Els Henckaerts
Awarded amount: 9.2 million euros

From woody biomass to basic chemical raw material
In order to become more sustainable, the chemical industry must first get rid of its dependence on fossil raw materials such as oil and natural gas. This can be done, for example, by using biomass from green waste streams (wood waste, plant residues, etc.), a source that not only avoids net CO2 emissions, but above all does not pose a threat to food production.

Bert Sels, full professor of bio-engineering sciences
But before this biomass can be used as an alternative chemical feedstock, a thorough conversion is required first. In the BioCon project, a research platform is being set up to refine woody biomass into chemical raw materials. The focus will be on lignin, the biological component that gives trees and plants their strength. Within BioCon, chemists will investigate how the lignin can be optimally isolated from the biomass, purified and stabilized.

‘With this project we want to demonstrate that the extraction of lignin from green waste streams such as plant residues and waste wood and its conversion into basic chemical raw materials is not only circular, but also technologically and economically feasible,’ says professor of bioengineering sciences Bert Sels. ‘The chemical industry is a very investment-intensive sector, a successful new innovation usually requires a lot of preliminary research. With this pilot project we want to raise the lignin conversion above the lab level.’

Department: Sustainable Processes and Catalysis
Project leader: Bert Sels
Awarded amount: 8.2 million euros

Building a climate neutral Flanders
By 2030, the European Union wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent and by 2050 it wants to be climate neutral. The challenge is also great for the built environment, especially in Flanders, where the building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-consuming in Europe. A new interpretation and adaptation of urbanized areas and a thorough renovation of buildings is imperative. There is an important role for far-reaching prefabrication of building elements, for automation and for digitization.

Staf Roels (l.) and Dirk Saelens, both full professors of engineering sciences
There is a great deal of knowledge and expertise available in both the academic and business world to be able to realize this challenge. Unfortunately, major upheavals have not yet occurred because optimizations often focused on individual disciplines.

KU Leuven will realize a pilot building where innovative, replicable and commercially viable solutions for climate neutral construction will be researched, optimized and demonstrated. It will be a kind of research and demonstration hub for building tomorrow.

‘This project is fundamentally multidisciplinary: in addition to intense collaboration between the various disciplines within the architecture, we also involve other disciplines such as architecture, energy research, materials science, electrical engineering and human sciences’, says Dirk Saelens, full professor of engineering sciences. ‘A crucial aspect here is systems thinking, in which all those disciplines and therefore also techniques come together in a building in the right way and realize comfort in a climate-neutral and user-friendly way. Extensive digitization and a data-driven approach will help with this.’

Department: Department of Civil Engineering
Project leaders: Dirk Saelens, Staf Roels
Awarded amount: 8 million euros

Screening, identification and production of human antibodies
Antibodies are proteins produced by our immune system to kill foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria, or to eliminate tumor cells. Since most antibodies have a very specific structure and therefore function, it is important to screen them as accurately as possible so that they can be used as therapy for cancer, infectious or autoimmune diseases.

Paul Declerck, full professor of pharmaceutical sciences, and innovation manager Nick Geukens
Two years ago, MabMine at KU Leuven established a research platform for the screening, identification and isolation of human B cells – immune cells that produce target-specific antibodies – based on a very innovative approach. Recently, the platform proved its potential by isolating various antibodies in people who had experienced a corona infection. Over the next five years, MabMine will continue to grow as a sustainable catalyst for the development of new therapies and diagnostics based on human antibodies.

‘This extra funding is crucial to take our research to a higher level’, say Nick Geukens, innovation manager at KU Leuven and Paul Declerck, full professor of pharmaceutical sciences. ‘By developing a pipeline for innovative medicines based on human antibodies, we form a valorisation link between academic research and biotech and pharmaceutical R&D in Flanders. It is especially important for valorisation projects that you shift up a gear at a certain point. In this way, newly developed technologies can be prepared for use in the pharmaceutical industry and to create added value for society.’

Department: PharmAbs (the KU Leuven Antibody Center)
Project leaders : Paul Declerck and Nick Geukens
Awarded amount: 1.9 million euros

A molecular snapshot of cells in tumor tissue
In diseases such as cancer, it is important to analyze the tumor tissue as well as possible so that the most suitable treatment can be prescribed. The effectiveness of tailor-made cancer treatments is therefore highly dependent on the quality of molecular tissue analyses. These analyzes can be improved even further, for example by fully molecularly screening a sample of the tumor that is as representative as possible. Ideally, this involves looking at as many molecules as possible that are produced by the cells at the same time. After all, these molecules can indicate which genes, proteins, or metabolic pathways in the tumor cells function abnormally strong or weakly. In short, they can indicate what exactly is going wrong in the tumor.

Johan Van Lint, professor of medicine
Such a molecular screening of many thousands of cells simultaneously generates an enormous amount of data, and as a result, this ‘multiomics’ approach is already highly digitized. Within the Prismo project, KU Leuven now wants to further expand this technological infrastructure, with highly advanced microscopes that make ‘molecular snapshots’ of cells and tissues, with extensive automation and with enhanced data processing and storage.

‘Today we have technology to not only identify the many thousands of molecules that a cell produces, ranging from DNA to RNA to proteins, lipids and metabolites, but also to actually see them in an intact tissue context’, says Johan Van Lint, professor of medicine. ‘Thanks to this funding, we can expand infrastructure to make even more precise analyses, and also to significantly increase the throughput of tissue samples. In fact, we want to be able to quickly make a detailed “portrait” of all individual cells in a tumor (not only cancer cells, but also, for example, the immune cells present) and discover, for example, why a certain therapy works well for one patient and not for another. .

Project leader: Johan Van Lint
Department: Leuven Cancer Institute
Awarded amount: 1.9 million euros

Towards a circular bioeconomy
In the Leuven ‘transition center’ TRANSfarm, sustainable, circular innovations in the bioeconomy are scaled up from lab level to pilot scale. The researchers of TRANSfarm thus have a supporting role for researchers at KU Leuven who are involved in basic research. Together with them, they try to bring new inventions to the practical setting. This also with a view to allowing them to move on to the market more quickly.

TRANSfarm director Wouter Merckx
The research is situated in the fields of food, animal feed, green chemistry, green energy and bio-based raw materials and materials with a minimal impact on climate, water, soil and biodiversity. In short: circular bioeconomy.
TRANSfarm has unique knowledge and expertise in scaling up more fundamental innovations to practical level. Moreover, the work is very broad and cross-domain, looking for connections between different scaling up assignments.

‘The process from the lab to the practice usually takes a very long time,’ says TRANSfarm director Wouter Merckx. ‘With this financing we can shift up a few gears. So much so that we will be able to scale up new innovations almost simultaneously with the basic research phase.’

Project leader: Wouter Merckx
Department: Group S&T
Amount awarded: 1.9 million euros