Medical Delta funds pilot studies for four talented scientists

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Medical Delta is making a total of € 200,000 available for projects by four talented scientists. With this funding, they will be able to perform pilot studies and give their scientific careers a boost. The aim of this Medical Delta Talent Acceleration Call is to increase the chances of follow-up funding.

The jury was unanimous in its choice of the pilot studies by Dr. Kirby Lattwein (Erasmus MC), Dr. Gertjan Lugthart (LUMC / Erasmus MC), Dr. Janna Marie Bas-Hoogendam (Leiden University / LUMC) and Dr. Agustin Enciso-Martinez (as of 1 February LUMC). Their research will benefit more insight and thus possibly better treatment options for heart infections, the hereditary blood disease thalassemia, mental disorders and for detecting cancers in blood samples.

Kickstart for follow-up research

More than 350 scientists work within Medical Delta on 15 interdisciplinary scientific programs at the cutting edge of Health & Technology. These studies contribute to technological solutions for sustainable healthcare. The future of this Medical Delta research partly depends on the success of new research talent. It is relatively difficult for beginning scientists to obtain grants for their research. They sometimes compete with established names.

"The number and quality of the applications once again clearly show the potential that we have as a region," says Prof. Dr. Frank Willem Jansen, chairman of Medical Delta. "The talent call clearly met a need. It is great that we are able to give talent in the Medical Delta region room to perform their pilot research and thus provide a stepping stone to the next phase in their scientific careers in Medical Delta."

Gel against bacterial infections in the heart

Bacterial infections in the heart lead to mortality rates of 40% in the first year to 82% in five years. This is because in many cases the bacteria form a clot-like biofilm that is resistant to antibiotics. Therefore, surgical removal of infected heart valves and tissue is often the only treatment option, but complete removal of the biofilm is often not successful. Moreover, the remaining biofilm and artificial valves are highly susceptible to reinfection.

Dr. Kirby Lattwein wants to do something about this. In her pilot study, she is investigating whether a therapeutic gel can dissolve the biofilms, making it easier for the surgeon to remove the infection completely during the operation. She hypothesises that this gel is activated by sound waves. "With the funding for the study, I want to work with my co-researchers to develop the gel and demonstrate its efficacy in a clinically translatable proof-of-concept," says Lattwein. With this project, she hopes to pave the way for future funding opportunities for further research. The research is related to the Medical Delta UltraHB scientific program.

Unravelling the cause of stem cell transplant rejection in hereditary blood disease

Thalassaemia is a serious hereditary blood disease resulting in chronic anaemia. Children with severe thalassaemia can be cured with a stem cell transplant. This involves replacing the diseased stem cells with stem cells from a healthy donor. Unfortunately, the healthy stem cells are rejected in one in five thalassaemia patients. A new transplant is then needed. Dr. Gertjan Lugthart wants to find out why this happens, so that ways can be found to reduce rejection.

"In this study I want to study in detail how stem cells, young red blood cells and immune cells develop after stem cell transplantation.  If we have a better understanding of the mechanism of stem cell transplant rejection in this group of thalassaemia patients, we can target this with medication," says Lugthart. By using a new technique, he can not only determine for each cell individually which genes are activated and which proteins are expressed, but also whether the cell originates from a donor or patient."

The main objective of Lugthart's pilot project is to develop and refine a new technique to unravel the individual profiles of blood cells originating from donor and patient after haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), with high resolution. Based on this study, he plans to apply for a grant for follow-up research. Lugthart's research has common ground with the Medical Delta AI for Computational Life Sciences scientific programme.

Train your brain: innovative lab set-up for real-time brain research

Under the title 'Train your brain', Dr. Janna Marie Bas-Hoogendam wants to create a lab set-up in the province of Zuid-Holland for testing and developing real-time fMRI-based neurofeedback. This new technology makes it possible for people to receive real-time feedback about the functioning of a part of their brain during an MRI scan, and to act on it immediately.

In her research, Bas-Hoogendam wants to involve patients, doctors and the industry in order to develop a method that can be applied in practice. Ultimately, she hopes this will help develop treatments for anxiety disorders and other psychological conditions. "My pilot project does not focus on a specific research question, but introduces a new technology and creates an innovative lab set-up," says Bas-Hoogendam. "It is difficult to get funding for such a generic proposal. With this pilot study, I hope to create a snowball effect for further research, not only for myself but for other researchers in the Medical Delta region as well."

Detecting cancers more easily from blood

Biomarkers play an important role in the effective treatment and monitoring of cancer. In the last decade, tumour-derived extracellular vesicles have emerged as an important biomarker. This means that the vesicles contain information about the molecular profile of the tumour and show the heterogeneity and dynamics during treatment. Because they are present in body fluids such as blood, it is easy to find them in patients. However, the isolation and characterisation of this type of biomarker remains a huge challenge, as vesicles are a minority compared to other particles with similar properties.

The aim of Dr. Agustin Enciso-Martinez's pilot project is to selectively isolate vesicles from the blood of people with cancer by combining different methods. Ultimately, it should make it easier to use this biomarker and thus obtain crucial information about the cancer. "I want to use the results of this pilot study to apply for grant applications such as VENI and Gisela Their (LUMC) fellowship or KWF Young Investigator Grant," says Enciso-Martinez. "With this project I want to demonstrate the clinical feasibility and usability of the developed method." The topic of this research is in line with the scientific programme METABODELTA: Metabolomics for clinical advances in the Medical Delta.  

The pilot studies will all start early next year. Results are expected in about a year.

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