KU Leuven opens the future of brain research

Summary

University’s fundraising campaign brings the worlds of business and research closer together

Creating an excellence network

We hear a lot about the increasing health challenges posed by brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, but scientific understanding of these conditions is still very vague. To support visionary research, with much potential but no clear view on the results, the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) organised a fundraising campaign called Opening the Future.

The initiators of the campaign are KU Leuven honorary rector Mark Waer, managing director Koen Debackere and Urbain Vandeurzen, chair of the Flemish government’s investment corporation, Gimv. Vandeurzen, a driving force from the start a few years ago, now chairs the campaign. “More than cancer, brain disorders are the biggest medical-scientific threat for our society,” he says in KU Leuven’s Campuskrant magazine. “We focus on three neurodegenerative diseases – Alzheimer’s, ALS and muscular dystrophy – and autism, on which research is still in an early stage.”

Alongside Vandeurzen, the board of directors includes other names from the business world: imec chair Antoon De Proft, Telenet chair Frank Donck, Janssen Pharmaceutica honorary chair Ajit Shetty and Reynaers Aluminium managing director Martine Reynaers. From KU Leuven, Waer and Debackere are joined by professors Hilde Laga and Désiré Collen, chair Herman Daems and rector Rik Torfs. 

Opening the Future is embedded in and receives administrative aid from the Leuven University Fund but is independently managed. Apart from providing funding, the aim of the campaign is to create a framework in which KU Leuven researchers can meet the donors, to establish a more permanent connection instead of a single donation. “This way, we can create an excellence network with top figures from the business and university world, which in today’s knowledge society is the ideal platform to achieve social and economic breakthroughs,” says Vandeurzen.

Difficult to evaluate

Six researchers at Leuven are receiving assistance via Opening the Future: professors Jean Steyaert, Bart De Strooper, Wim Robberecht, Peter Carmeliet, Maurilio Sampaolesi and Chris Van Geet. Steyaert, De Strooper and Robberecht explained their projects and the value of the campaign in Campuskrant

Opening the Future almost gives us carte blanche

- Jean Steyaert

Autism expert Steyaert believes the advantage of the fundraising campaign lies in the fact that it creates possibilities for interdisciplinary research. “Classic donors from the public sector often find such research difficult to evaluate, because it’s not always clear who does what in which domain,” he says, “but Opening the Future almost gives us carte blanche.”

According to Steyaert, autism can only be treated in an interdisciplinary way because it involves genetic, biochemical, social, psychological and upbringing issues. “There are also already more than 200 genes identified that contribute to autism disorders,” he says, “and even patients with a similar genetic anomaly can show very different behavioural problems. This complexity makes it difficult to find financial support.”

Thanks to the fundraising campaign, Steyaert’s team is working on two research topics. One focuses on testing a new orthopedagogical evaluation and treatments. The other concentrates on early detection in babies by mapping the biological markers or characteristics that predict an increased risk of autism. 

Taking a risk

Although Alzheimer’s expert De Strooper acknowledges that he can count on substantial financing from the public sector, he says he only receives those subsidies for “safe projects”. “These projects with a large feasibility are important,” he says, “but to achieve real breakthroughs, you need to try experiments that also have a high risk of failing.”

Our insights can be of great value for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease

- Wim Robberecht

He also denounces the administrative obligations connected to, for example, European subsidies. “These are understandable, but also counterproductive for the research,”  he says. “In Opening the Future, all attention goes to our creativity.”

De Strooper’s team will use the financial support to explore the role of so-called microRNAs, small molecules that regulate the biochemical function of a cell, in the development of Alzheimer’s. The next step would be to find therapeutic means to influence the activity of microRNAs.

He hopes the attention and financing for Alzheimer’s research will soon rise to the same heights as that seen for cancer and Aids. “That’s necessary because in the next 10 years, the number of patients with dementia – of which Alzheimer’s is the best-known form – will increase by 50%,” he says.

According to Robberecht, Opening the Future is an ideal way to support translational research, which translates fundamental research into possibilities for clinical applications. “If the solution is not yet fully ready for the pharmaceutical or biotech sector, the top scientific papers will often refuse to publish it,” he says. “This risk discourages many donors, although the research is of vital importance because it prepares the way for the actual application.”

Robberecht specialises in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the motor neurone disease that is mostly known because of physicist Stephen Hawking, who has had the disease since the age of 21. With the additional funding, Robberecht’s team will set up several research projects, from the search for therapeutic options  to the analysis of hereditary anomalies. “Our insights can also be of great value for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” he says.

Fellow researcher Carmeliet is an expert on angiogenesis, the physiological process through which new blood vessels are formed, which is important in the battle against cancer. Sampaolesi investigates cardiovascular pathologies related to muscular dystrophy and stem cell therapy, while Van Geet works on blood platelets in patients with neurological disorders.

University of Leuven

Established almost six centuries ago, the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) is one of the oldest universities in the Low Countries. International rankings consistently place it among the best universities in Europe.
Papal founding - It was founded as a Catholic university by Pope Martin V in 1425.
Bright minds - Over the centuries, it attracted famous scholars like Justus Lipsius, Andreas Vesalius, Desiderius Erasmus and Gerard Mercator.
Micro and nano - KU Leuven is home to the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (imec), a world-class research centre in micro- and nanoelectronics.
11 544

staff members in 2013

40 069

students in 2014-2015 academic year

365

million euros in annual research budget