2 Innovative projects awarded ERC Proof of Concept grants

15 March 2017

Like VIB itself, the European Research Council is keen on taking excellent ideas at the frontiers of science all the way to commercialization and real societal benefit. The Council’s Proof of Concept Grants are awarded to recent winners of ERC grants working on high-potential research projects to bridge the chasm between scientific exploration and commercial innovation. Previous POC grants have been awarded to projects undertaken by the labs of Jan Tavernier (VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology), Matthew Holt (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research), Jan Cools (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) and Peter Carmeliet (VIB KU-Leuven Center for Cancer Biology).

Two new projects will be joining their ranks in the form of Mohamed Lamkanfi’s (VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research) development of a diagnostics tool for Familial Mediterranean Fever, and Massimiliano Mazzone’s (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) research into into a blood-based test for diagnosis of colorectal cancer. We asked them both to tell us a little bit about their projects and what these grants mean to their continuing research.

Why did you decide to go ahead and apply for a Proof of Concept Grant?
Massimiliano: “I liked the idea of linking EU support to my main ERC grant that could help us to use our findings to design and carry out real clinical tests that are meaningful for patients.”

Mohamed: “On my side, considering the need for more diagnostic options for these patients, there was a clear impetus for us to ask ERC to support our efforts to study how our basic research findings can
be put to work as a practical diagnostic assay.”

And for your grant-winning projects, was your close connection to a university hospital key to the success of the research?
Massimiliano: “This connection was crucial, I couldn’t have done it without Hans Prenen at UZ Leuven, with whom we’ve been collaborating for the last 5 years. His clinical knowledge and our basic and translational
science was the perfect combo, leading to important discoveries, good visibility in the scientific ommunity and support from the outside world.”

Mohamed: “I agree with Massimiliano, it was extremely important. We worked closely with Joke Dehoorne and Filomeen Haerynck at the University Hospital in Ghent, as they are in the unique position of actively seeing patients. Working with them opened doors and provided other points of view and novel ideas.”

What will you do with the extra funding?
Massimiliano: “We’re planning to develop a proof-of-principle that our diagnostic tool can work in the general population in a prospective study, and that it can be combined with or presented as an alternative to the FIT test.”

Mohamed: “We want to extend our initial proof-of-concept studies in 13 patients to a larger patient group, and we will use the ERC funding to study the opportunity for commercial development with an industrial
partner and/or clinical implementation of our FMF diagnostic test with clinical labs.”

Is communication important in these kinds of projects, and do you need to be in touch with the population collaborating with you?
Massimiliano: “Communication channels definitely played a role in sensitizing the population to the medical need for fast CRC diagnosis, which means a high chance of being cured. The media’s pickup of the information is also relevant to gaining support from granting agencies as well. Even so, patient enrollment was done by the hospital, although many people expressed their interest in participating by contacting us personally.”

Mohamed: “Many people aren’t aware that they can make essential contributions to groundbreaking research
even though they would be very interested in doing so. This makes communication very important to this project. We actively committed tocommunication through the press, through hospital channels and through

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Mohamed Lamkanfi (VIB-UGent)

Massimiliano Mazzone (VIB-KU Leuven)

Pictures:©VIB-Ine Dehandschutter