UHasselt leads fight against chronic age-related diseases


As the population ages, a project led from Limburg is aiming to protect people better against chronic illnesses that can harm the elderly

Growing old healthily

Thanks to improved living standards, there’s a good chance we will live to old age. But there’s also a high risk of chronic disease in the elderly. A project led by Hasselt University (UHasselt) aims to protect people better against such diseases by examining the role of the immune system in ageing.

“As people grow older, their immune system weakens, making them more vulnerable to diseases,” says Kim Pannemans of UHasselt’s Biomedical Research Institute (Biomed), who is leading the Healthy Aging project. “We will analyse the reasons behind the ageing process of the immune system and try out ways to slow down this process.”

Among the chronic health problems the project will focus on are cardiovascular diseases, multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatism, chronic obstructive lung diseases and asthma. UHasselt has particular expertise in MS research.

An important part of the project involves finding biomarkers to detect the ageing of the immune system. Biomarkers are substances in the blood that indicate the presence of diseases.

“We will evaluate existing biomarkers and try to find new ones,” explains Pannemans. “With a set of good biomarkers, we will design a diagnostic tool to check for diseases related to the ageing immune system.” 

At an early stage

Research centre imo-imomec – a joint initiative by  UHasselt and nanotechnology research centre imec – will then turn this basic diagnostic tool into concrete technology, known as biosensors. These biosensors can be used on larger groups of patients.

The biomarkers will also be used to examine immune therapy methods. Immune therapy is a targeted treatment method, meaning the immune system is stimulated to focus on battling a specific health problem. “This research is still in a very early stage, so we won’t carry out such experiments on people,” Pannemans says.

We will analyse the reasons behind the ageing process of the immune system and try out ways to slow down this process

- Kim Pannemans

The work on the biomarkers should also help researchers develop more customised treatments for patients. “About 70% of patients suffering from an age-related chronic disease no longer respond to general therapies,” said Pannemans. “In the long-term we hope to contribute to the development of a system that enables doctors to prescribe a treatment adjusted to a patient’s specific needs.”

A second important part of the project concentrates on experiments with nutraceuticals – products derived from food sources with extra health benefits. The team will test the effect of three kinds of nutraceuticals, on asthma patients and others.

The project will examine the effect of the nutraceutical Mona001, developed by Limburg biomedical company MonaCell, one of the project’s partners. “Elderly test people will take the nutraceutical and also do power training,” explains Pannemans. “We will analyse the extent to which the nutraceutical helps strengthen their muscles.”

For the studies on people, UHasselt can count on the expertise of Limburg’s Happy Aging platform: a community of experts, companies, care organisations, knowledge institutes and policymakers devoted to boosting innovation revolving around improving the ageing experience. Happy Aging serves as a living lab, organising product and service tests by elderly people that allow them to live at home longer, more safely and in better conditions.

Economic boost

Apart from improving the health of the general population and reducing the costs for the health-care sector, the project also aims to encourage the economy in Flanders, specifically in Limburg. “Our work can boost the R&D of our companies and lead to the production of new applications,” says Pannemans.

The project responds closely to the goals put forward in the Salk recovery programme for Limburg, set up in 2013 by the Flemish government after the closure of the Ford factory in Genk was announced. One of the programme’s goals is to develop initiatives in the life sciences and health-care sectors, particularly niches with a strong growth potential, such as healthy ageing.

For the project, which began at the end of March, UHasselt is working with other universities in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. There are also several companies involved, including MonaCell and imo-imomec, which are both based in Diepenbeek, near Hasselt.

The project, which will last for three years, is supported by the Interreg cross-border programme of the EU’s regional development fund, and by local partners such as the province of Limburg. About €4.8 million is being invested in the project, with the Interreg contribution worth about half of the costs.

Photo courtesy UHasselt