VIB presents its 2016 annual results: a clear creation of added value for society

15 May 2017

​VIB’s basic research is  inspired by major social challenges and it focuses on two primary human needs: healthy living and sustainable food production. VIB scientists, accommodated in thematic research centers, study the molecular mechanisms of health and sickness of human beings and of the growth and development of plants. When we understand these mechanisms better, we can develop improved diagnoses and treatments. This should eventually lead to the prevention of diseases and to improved harvests and food.

VIB presents its results in its 2016 annual report. Below is a limited selection of implementations from the past year that will have a significant impact on our society. 


Ready for the future
The entire institute was audited and was given an excellent evaluation report for the fourth time in a row. The future strategy ‘VIB beyond borders' will further consolidate and increase the global impact of VIB’s position as a leading life sciences research institute. Based on this positive evaluation, and the ambitious strategic plan, the Flemish government has given VIB its full support with a 34% increase in financing in the coming five years.

Strong leadership for exceptional results
In the context of VIB’s future strategy, the research groups were reorganized in thematic research centers. This stimulates a multi-disciplinary approach and encourages cross-pollination and interaction among the researchers. It will provide positive consequences for the international and social impact of VIB.

VIB's 8 centers

  • VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research
  • VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology
  • VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology
  • VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology
  • VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research
  • VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology
  • VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology
  • VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology

VIB will require strategic leadership and scientific mentoring to ensure collaboration is encouraged across borders and that the decision-making process follows a bottom-up approach. In the appendix, you will find the opinions and visions of a few of VIB’s “new” scientific directors.

A selection of the 2016 results 

- Science meets science
VIB researchers respond to the highest divisions in their discipline (cancer biology, brain research, research into inflammation and infection, plant systems biology, medical biotechnology, structural biology and microbiology). Scientific research at VIB is continually evaluated against the work of leading experts in a variety of subdomains in institutes for biosciences worldwide. 

The examples from 2016 below give an idea of the impact of VIB’s research:

  • VIB scientists have identified cancer-specific long non-coding RNAs (NEAT1 and SAMMSON), two possible targets for cancer therapies. What is notable about their findings is that the two targets are required for cancer cells to grow but not for normal cell functioning.
  • VIB scientists have developed their own technology for developing target-specific designer molecules that can eliminate their target. They demonstrated their technology with a designer molecule against VEGFR2, a well-known cancer target. The scientists demonstrated that the new molecule kills cancer cells in mice and stops tumor growth. Because these principles apply for almost all proteins, the approach can be useful for developing future cancer therapies and also to treat drug-resistant infections.
  • VIB scientists have unravelled a mechanism that causes Dystonia cell defects in the most common genetic form. Their findings shed a new light on this poorly understood condition and can form a starting point for the development of a new medical approach to treatment. 
  • VIB scientists have discovered a potential new therapy for untreatable epilepsy. They have established that an increase in the concentration of specific brain fats can supress epileptic attacks.
  • Worldwide, most stomach ulcers and stomach cancer are caused by the stomach bacteria Helicobacter pylori. VIB scientists have discovered detailed structural and functional insights in the way in which the BabA protein of the pathogen interacts with specific sugars in the stomach. This breakthrough lays the foundation for a rational design of new drugs against H. pylori infections.

- Science meets technology 
It is indisputable that scientific breakthroughs depend on interdisciplinary partnerships and curiosity-driven research and also to a great extent on technological progress. VIB understands how important it is for scientists to have access to technological expertise and advanced infrastructure. The innovative culture of VIB focuses on two points: Tech Watch and institutional Key Facilities. Together, they offer VIB scientists a competitive lead that resulted in pioneering results.

- Science meets business
2016 was also a productive year for VIB’s technology transfer activities. The industrial partnerships have provided a 13.3 million euro turnover and have resulted in establishing a new start-up: Aphea.Bio. VIB now has a total of 19 spin-offs with a total capital investment of 930 million euros.

- Science meets people
2016 was also characterised by the celebration of VIB’s 20th anniversary. VIB celebrated that joyful fact with a symposium ‘Science meets life' and with the Biotechtour, a trip through Flanders with an exhibition about VIB’s research. 

Opinion and vision scientific directors VIB

Jan Steyaert en Han Remaut – Science Directors, VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology
“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.” 

Patrik Verstreken – Science Director, VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research
“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.”

Diether Lambrechts en Jean-Christophe Marine –Science Directors, VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology
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.”

Kevin Verstrepen – Science Director, VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology
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.

Susanne Rianneke Sierksma
©VIB, Ine Dehandschutter