VIB pushes the boundaries of science to develop new diagnostic tools

27 July 2017

​Greater knowledge of molecular mechanisms and novel bio-analytical methods lead to more efficient and accurate diagnostics. With their world-leading strengths in molecular research and biotechnology, various VIB labs are paving the way for novel diagnostic tools that will ultimately reduce disease burden and save lives by making disease diagnosis better, faster and more flexible. The proof is in the partnership: three recent collaborations between VIB, university hospitals and diagnostics industry leaders highlight just how critical molecular science at VIB is to the development of cutting-edge diagnostic technology.

Jan Staelens, VIB Business Development Manager: “It is very fulfilling to see how the perseverance of our researchers makes it possible to translate a conceptually novel test to clinical utility. This endeavor also requires persistent support and advice from external partners, and funding from agencies like ERC, the UGent Industrial Research Council, VLAIO and others. But also private initiatives such as the Fournier-Majoie Foundation (FMF) and its founder, Mr. Bernard Majoie were essential for their funding and long-term support. We are grateful for all these efforts in bringing new diagnostics to the clinic that can reduce the disease burden of cancer.”

Intelligent liver disease diagnosis and monitoring
In cooperation with VIB, Helena Biosciences – a UK-based medical diagnostics firm – is currently right on track toward commercializing a comprehensive blood test for chronic liver disease. The new test, called the Glyco Liver Profile, enables medical professionals to non-invasively diagnose and monitor liver diseases. In particular, it can detect liver cirrhosis at an early stage and can predict a liver cirrhosis patient’s likelihood of developing liver cancer within five years – a first for the market. This will enable cost-effective intensive monitoring for early stages of liver cancer in the group at high risk, at which stage effective treatment options are available. In patients with fatty liver disease, Glyco Liver Profile allows to detect chronic inflammation, which is the main hallmark of NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis), the more advanced stage of the disease that requires intensive therapy.

The technology behind the tool was first developed in 2004 by Nico Callewaert of the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology and Roland Contreras (VIB-UGent). They collaborated with Hans Van Vlierberghe and Joris Delanghe at UZ Gent for further validation of the technology. The test is the first one that is based on  direct analysis of the glycome (mix of sugar modifications) of serum proteins, which are mainly produced by the liver. “Wouter Laroy, Dieter Vanderschaeghe and Wim Nerinckx in our labs, with help of many others,
had to design and produce all critical reagents and develop it to the point that the test could be run on an existing clinical diagnostic instrument like the one of Helena. This now leads to a test that fills important gaps in diagnostic capabilities in chronic liver disease. Thanks to our collaboration with Helena, it will bring substantial benefits to patients and medical centers in the form of accuracy and personalization of patient follow-up and treatment,” Nico explains

Publications
Callewaert et al., Nature Medicine 2004
Blomme et al., Dig. Liver. Dis. 2012
Verhelst et al., Clinical Cancer Research 2016

Colon cancer screening dream team
Another key example of how VIB research has enabled the innovation of critical new diagnostic tools in human healthcare is in the form of a collaboration with DNAlytics to develop a noninvasive colorectal cancer screening test. If detected at an early stage, colorectal cancer responds very well to treatment, making early
detection a huge priority. However, current tests fall short at delivering quick, comprehensive and accurate results.

Using insights gained through the research of Massimiliano Mazzone from the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology on the identification of cancer bio-markers using a specific type of white blood cell, the tool – called the ColonoKit – meets the demand for a diagnostic suitable for any kind of patient. It offers greater certainty and the ability to detect bowel cancer very early on, potentially eliminating half of non-urgent
or unnecessary colonoscopies. It also offers the unique possibility of following previously treated colorectal cancer patients over time in order to quickly detect relapses and improve cure success. “I’ve been working on the role of the immune system in cancer for more than 10 years now,” says Massimiliano. “It’s a puzzling field with a lot of potential for clinical application, and it’s great that our work is the basis of a novel diagnostic kit with clear advantages for the patients.”

DNAlytics, a specialized data analytics firm, is currently in the process of developing an evolving online platform to complement the ColonoKit. Underlining the importance of this research even more, Massimiliano was awarded a Proof of Concept grant by the European Research Council to further develop the kit alongside his cancer and immunity research colleague Hans Prenen at UZ Leuven.

Publications
Hamm, Prenen, Van Delm et al., Gut 2015
Wenes et al., Cell Metabolism 2016

Automating msi testing to predict response to cancer immunotherapy
Characterization of genetic alterations accumulating in solid tumors is a key research area of Diether Lambrechts’ lab at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology. Microsatellite instability (MSI) is a particular type of tumor characterized by mutations that arise during DNA replication and that are not corrected by the DNA repair machinery. MSI is most often found in colorectal or endometrial cancer patients, where it predicts
response to chemotherapy in stage 2 or 3 patients or tailors patients with a metastatic colorectal tumor to cancer immunotherapy. Until now, MSI testing technologies have been complex and time-consuming to perform, which makes MSI often underdiagnosed in the clinical setting.

After receiving a grant of EUR 750,000 from the Flanders’ Organization for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) in March 2017, Belgian medical diagnostics company Biocartis is working alongside the VIB scientists to develop a fully automated, highly accurate MSI test for colorectal cancer integrated with Biocartis’ Idylla™ platform. A set of unique MSI biomarkers, identified by Diether’s lab, were licensed to Biocartis in 2013.

“MSI testing can offer high clinical value to oncology treatments,” Diether asserts. “The biomarkers that we identified, in combination with the advantages of Biocartis’ Idylla™ platform, will allow us to significantly lower the barriers to MSI diagnostics. We’re excited to extend our collaboration with Biocartis into the immunotherapy space.”

Publications
Zhao et al., Elife 2014
Claes et al., J Clin Oncol 2015