Preventing torn blood vessels through genetics wins ‘Belgian Nobel prize’


Antwerp Unviersity professor Bart Loeys has won one of two Francqui-Collen Prizes for biomedical research

Life savers

Bart Loeys (pictured) of Antwerp University has been awarded the prestigious Francqui-Collen Prize for biomedical research. He was singled out for his ground-breaking work on the genetic basis of diseases that affect blood vessels. This has already resulted in better diagnosis and more effective treatments.

The Francqui prize is one of the highest honours awarded to researchers in Belgium – think Belgian Nobel prizes. The categories rotate each year among the exact sciences, the human sciences, and the biological and medical sciences.

Usually there is just one prize, but this year an additional donation from past winner Désiré Collen (a former professor of medicine at KU Leuven) meant that two prizes could be given. One is for fundamental biomedical research, the other for clinical research.

The patients we identify thanks to these genetic characteristics are closely followed up with specific medical treatments

- Dr Bart Loeys

The prize for fundamental biomedical research went to Cédric Blanpain of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). His research focuses on the cells that develop into skin and breast cancers, work that lays the ground for new treatments.

Loeys, meanwhile, received the prize for clinical research for his work on the genetic differences that underlie aortic aneurysms. These occur when the aorta, the main blood vessel leaving the heart, swells up and starts to leak and eventually to tear.

“The patients we can identify thanks to these genetic characteristics are closely followed up with specific medical treatments,” Loeys explained. “If necessary, the patient is operated on to replace the aortic wall, preventing a rupture and saving many lives.”

Loeys-Dietz Syndrome

Loeys is also one of a select group of researchers to have a disease named after him, since one of these genetic conditions is now known as Loeys-Dietz Syndrome. The prize jury explained that Loeys’ research demonstrated the tremendous promise that precision medicine holds to better the human condition.

“His work shows how careful analysis of the molecular basis of disease in individuals can bring about a general understanding of biological principles,” reads the jury statement, “and at the same time lead to personalised diagnostics and therapeutics.”

The award, worth €250,000, is given to researchers under the age of 50 in order to encourage them to continue with their work. With only 30% of aortic aneurysms currently assigned to known genetic factors, Loeys is keen to carry on. “It is essential to conduct additional research to identify other genetic factors that can lead to these aneurysms,” he said.

Photo ©Christophe Licoppe/BELGA