VIB Matinee in the Flemish Parliament: Flemish Government invests heavily in VIB

20 February 2017

​“VIB is committed to Flanders, and Flanders is committed to VIB. Thus we are increasing VIB’s annual grant to 59 million euros.” With these words, Philippe Muyters, Flemish Minister for Work, Economy, Innovation and Sport, ratified the new management agreement between VIB and the Flemish Government on Monday, February 20, 2017. The management agreement sets out VIB’s objectives for the next five years and the funding that the Flemish Government will provide in return. Between 2017 and 2021, VIB will receive nearly 300 million euros, an increase of 34% on the previous five-year period.

The new strategic plan was signed at the Flemish Parliament. VIB took the opportunity to introduce itself and present its achievements and its future plans to parliamentarians, policy officers, and everyone in Flanders who was interested to find out more. The matinee in the Flemish Parliament was also the closing event of VIB’s biotech tour through Flanders.

Excellence in three areas
Managing director Jo Bury explained how VIB has spent twenty years striving for excellence in three areas: excellence in life sciences through groundbreaking research, excellence in technology transfer and entrepreneurship through converting research results into value for society, and excellence in scientific communication through engaging in dialogue with the public.

VIB’s eight research centers are firmly rooted in the five Flemish universities. The institute now has 1500 employees (of 66 nationalities). They have published 840 scientific studies, 88 of which have appeared in Tier 1 journals (Nature, Science, Cell, etc.). These results earned the institute second place in the Biomed & Health Sciences section of the 2015 Leiden Ranking. MIT took the lead, but VIB scored higher than Caltech, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.

“VIB’s researchers focus on the molecular mechanisms of life,” Bury continued. “Those of humans, animals, plants, and micro-organisms alike. The two key questions are: how can we live healthy lives and how can we feed the world's population? To solve these issues, we need to be pioneers, not opportunists. Our research competes at a global level. We focus on quality and social relevance.”

The eight research directors explained their strategy

Sustainable agriculture and economy
Dirk Inzé of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology    was the first to take the stage. His center will continue to focus on productive and sustainable agriculture that tolerates changing conditions (such as drought, climate, etc.). “We want to use our knowledge of plants to help provide solutions for the climate problem,” Inzé said. “By using plant flows more intensively, it will even be possible to achieve a CO2-negative economy. That means an economy that absorbs rather than emits CO2.”
At the same time, Inzé wants to expand the focus of his research center to the roles of plant-based foods in health: “Our intense collaboration with VIB’s biomedical centers has placed us in a pole position for this work.”

Keeping inflammation in check
“Many diseases in Western society involve inflammation,” explained Bart Lambrecht of the VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research. “Think of eczema, hay fever, asthma, rheumatism, etc. Understanding these inflammatory reactions and developing a preventive strategy to stop them are the challenges that our center has embarked upon. Important in this strategy is to build up young children’s defenses to the full. We try to do this by mimicking the beneficial effects of infections at an early age without making the children sick.”
Bart Lambrecht also called for basic research to be combined with its translation into clinical practice: “The thresholds are often still very high. Take personalized medicine, for example. It involves a tsunami of health data. Who would be able to process all that? Our hospitals are not ready for it. That is why VIB’s new ‘translational outreach’ is so important.” 

Pushing technological boundaries
“New research issues in the life sciences require new research tools,” said Nico Callewaert of the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology. “We are pushing back the limits of bio-analytical and bioengineering tools to arrive at a new technological approach to drug development, diagnostics, vaccines, therapies, etc.”
Callewaert gave the detection of tumor DNA in the blood as an example. This should enable cancer to be detected much earlier. “Our center probably has the highest geek value of the entire VIB,” joked Callewaert, “this is absolutely the place to be for obsessive techies with a passion for technology and for life sciences.” 

Unraveling molecular machines
Jan Steyaert of the VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology, testified to his team’s passion for the relationship between the structure and functions of the building blocks of life. “Our bodies are full of molecular machines, and it is our job to unravel the structure of the ‘moving parts.’ This research begins with the nuts and bolts, as it were, and slowly develops until the entire machine has been mapped out, right down to its molecular fibers. Eventually, this will teach us a lot about the operation and functioning of that machine, also when something goes wrong with it in patients.”

Steyaert also advocated a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit at VIB’s research centers: “Within VIB, we may well be the most fundamentally oriented center, but we still have an excellent track record in terms of spin-offs. Just think of the discovery of Nanobodies®, which gave rise to Ablynx and other companies. You can instigate or sponsor research valorization, but you also need people who recognize the opportunities. We have achieved this with a healthy internal mix of science and entrepreneurship, complemented and supported by the strengths of VIB’s valorization team.” 

Genetics drives neurological disease processes
Christine Van Broeckhoven of the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology explained in a video message how her center uses genetics to gain better understanding of neurological disease processes. Such insight is important for the development of new medications and treatments.
In the coming years, she intends to follow up patients earlier in the disease process and over a longer period of time. This will give doctors and researchers a better understanding of how neurodegenerative diseases develop and which parts of the brain are affected. This approach is bearing fruit, said Van Broeckhoven: “We can already make better diagnoses thanks to the information about degenerative brain diseases that we have collected so far.”

Dementia project
“The VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research focuses on diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, epilepsy, dystonia and ALS,” explained Director Patrik Verstreken. In the long term, Verstreken wants to gear up his center by setting up a wide-ranging research project on dementia: “Other countries are already doing this. They are spending millions of euros on longitudinal patient studies and detailed research into the functioning of the brain. Flanders must not miss that boat.”
Verstreken proposed an integrative approach using a wide range of technologies: from epidemiological, molecular and cellular research to systems biology and neuro-electronics to animal models. “I realize that studies using animal testing are a sensitive issue,” admitted Verstreken. “But even today, we still only understand a fraction of how our brains fit together and how they function. We cannot possibly simulate the complex reality of the brain with cell cultures. You cannot reproduce what you don’t understand. We cannot find solutions for dementia and other brain diseases without animal testing.”

Cancer, a chronic disease?
Cancer has become an enormous field of research. At the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology alone, twelve research groups are researching this disease. “All twelve groups are interested in the area surrounding the tumor. That is what unites us,” said Director Diether Lambrechts. “More than half of each tumor consists of normal cells. They are hijacked and manipulated by the malignant cells to promote their own growth. By zooming in on that tumor environment, we can open the doors to new forms of cancer therapy.”
“Great strides have been made inimmunotherapy, for example,” Lambrechts noted. “As a result, the survival rate of people with metastatic lung tumors has increased from months to years.” Things are also going very fast in other research areas, thanks in part to the implementation of new technologies at the clinic. Just think of next generation DNA sequencing. “Eliminating cancer altogether will be difficult,” concluded Lambrechts, “but as it stands, we will turn cancer into a chronic disease instead of a fatal condition. That has to be possible soon.”

It’s the little things…
Kevin Verstrepen of the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology envisages three major areas of interest for his center: “Micro-organisms are an important model system for cells in higher organisms. Many molecular basic mechanisms of life are discovered first in micro-organisms. The same will be true in the future.”
“On the other hand, (some) microbes make us sick. Although we have developed antibiotics, the microbes are fighting back, and they are fiercer than ever. If we want to control infectious diseases – MRSA above all - we must develop much stronger lines of research,” continued Verstrepen. However, micro-organisms are also beneficial: intestinal micro-organisms are essential for the digestion of food and play a crucial role in our health. Moreover, micro-organisms make wine, beer, cheese, and chocolate.... “We also want to take further steps towards synthetic biology in that area, designing artificial cells to make medicines or purify water”, Verstrepen added.


The interactive theater play ‘I, Raymond Hamers’ (Productions en Zonen) about how an accidental discovery in a Brussels laboratory resulted in the establishment of the successful biotech company Ablynx, added color to this session  on future strategies.

The session was concluded with the presentation of the first VIB Alumni Award to VIB alumnus Peter van Loo. He received the prize for his exceptional contribution as a cancer archaeologist to the mapping of the evolution of tumors. Peter van Loo obtained his PhD and engaged in postdoctoral research at VIB-KU Leuven, after which he conducted research at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge (UK). Since 2015, he has been affiliated with the Francis Crick Institute in London.


VIB creates value
In conclusion, managing director Johan Cardoen, again highlighted how VIB creates value for patients, agriculture, the economy and Flemish society by converting knowledge into partnerships with companies (more than 1100) or creating its own innovative spin-offs.

“However, value creation is both challenging and risky,” continued Johan Cardoen. “You often have to make the first move to provide start-up companies with capital. That is why we have founded V-Bio Ventures, an investment fund associated with VIB. That fund provides leverage for attracting external investors.” Finally, Cardoen made the case for VIB as an important catalyst in the emergence and development of the Flemish biotech ecosystem. VIB, as a knowledge center, attracts foreign investment, plays a key role in the development of bio-incubators and bio-accelerators for young companies, and, along with the universities and colleges, ensures the daily training of a talented and skilled workforce.

Final words
Philippe Muyters, Flemish Minister for Work, Economy, Innovation and Sports, underlined the importance that the Flemish Government attaches to research, entrepreneurship and innovation. The Minister was pleased with VIB’s strategic vision of the future: “I find it remarkable that VIB, as a catalyst of the Flemish biotechnology, is consciously organizing itself to face the major challenges before us. Moreover, VIB is a showpiece for Flanders because it excels at converting its acquired knowledge into successful spin-offs and other valorization projects.”

“VIB scores highly in all areas,” the Minister concluded. “However, such immense potential goes hand in hand with unpredictability and risk. For this reason, Flanders needs to contribute in the investments that enable VIB to go further and do even more for Flanders. This shared commitment translates into a new agreement with a budget increase of 15 million euros per year. VIB is committed to Flanders, and Flanders is committed to VIB.”

Ajit Shetty, Philippe Muyters, Jo Bury, Johan Cardoen

  Jo Bury
 Dirk Inzé
 Bart Lambrecht
 Nico Callewaert    
 Jan Steyaert

Patrik Verstreken
 Diether Lambrechts
 Kevin Verstrepen

 'I Raymond Hamers'                   Peter Van Loo

 Johan Cardoen
 Philippe Muyters

Pictures: ©VIB-Ine Dehandschutter