The year 2020, despite its challenges, brought about a string of successes for the institute and its staff. From the cross-departmental efforts in setting up and coordinating flagship COVID-19 projects, to the Department of Infection and Immunity’s (DII) advances in the fields of autoimmunity and pain relief, to the Department of Oncology’s (DONC) breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy and characterisation, through to the Department of Population Health’s (DoPH) findings in terms of public health, this year has been one to remember.
COVID-19: a collaborative priority area
In an attempt to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic, Research Luxembourg, a joint initiative of the main players in Luxembourg’s public research sector, set up a dedicated COVID-19 Taskforce, mobilising the knowledge and human and material resources of the Luxembourg public research sector. The Research Luxembourg COVID-19 Taskforce put in place several initiatives in this respect.
It launched “CON-VINCE” in April 2020, a study that seeks to evaluate the prevalence and dynamics of the spread of COVID-19 within the Luxembourgish population. Led by Prof Rejko Krüger, the project aims to test about 1,500 people for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and follow-up only the asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic individuals.
Furthermore, in March 2020, LIH, the Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg (CHL) and the Hôpitaux Robert Schuman (HRS) joined the consortium of the European clinical trial “Discovery”, coordinated by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), with the aim of testing new experimental therapies against COVID-19. The first Luxembourg patient was enrolled in April 2020.
Finally, as part of the exit strategy, the Research Luxembourg Taskforce implemented the nationwide “Large Scale Testing” (LST) campaign, encouraging residents and cross-border workers to voluntarily get tested for COVID-19 to break infection chains early and limit the spread of the virus. The first phase of the campaign, coordinated by LIH, ran from 27 May until 27 July 2020 and relied on 16 ‘drive-through’ and 1 ‘walk-through’ test stations. An extension period prior to the beginning of Phase II was set up until 15 September. In total, 1,520,445 invitations to LST were sent and 560,082 tests were conducted, covering 307,751 Luxembourg residents, reflecting an overall participation rate of almost 50 % of the resident population.
Prof Dirk Brenner and Henry Kurniawan of the Experimental & Molecular Immunology group at DII revealed a novel mechanism through which the immune system can control autoimmunity and cancer by regulating the function of regulatory T cells, thereby determining the balance between autoimmunity and anti-cancer activity. They further showed that a rationally-designed diet that specifically addresses metabolic alterations can reduce the effects of the disease. These findings were published in May 2020 in the leading international journal “Cell Metabolism”.
Dr Andy Chevigné, Dr Martyna Szpakowska and Max Meyrath of the Immuno-Pharmacology and Interactomics group at DII developed LIH383, a novel molecule that binds to and blocks a previously unknown opioid receptor in the brain, thereby modulating the levels of opioid peptides produced in the central nervous system (CNS) and potentiating their natural painkilling and antidepressant properties. These findings were published in June in the prestigious international journal “Nature Communications”. Dr Andy Chevigné and Dr Martyna Szpakowska were also awarded the 2019 Galien Prize in Pharmacology in December 2020 by the Belgian Minister of Public Health and Social Affairs for their continuous achievements in advancing the understanding of the pharmacology of atypical chemokine receptors (ACKRs) and their ligands.
In a new study, Dr Feng He of the Immune Systems Biology research group at DII and Prof Rejko Krüger, Director of Transversal Translational Medicine at LIH, adopted a holistic machine-learning approach to elucidate how the interactions between neuronal mitochondria can serve as a powerful tool to distinguish nerve cells from Parkinson’s patients from those belonging to healthy subjects. The results were published in November in the Nature Partner Journal “Systems Biology and Application”.
Scientists from the Tumor Immunotherapy and Microenvironment (TIME) research group led by Dr Bassam Janji at DONC, together with the Swedish pharma company Sprint Bioscience, published an innovative approach that turns “cold” immune-desert immunotherapy-resistant tumours into “hot” inflamed tumours infiltrated by the immune system and responsive to immunotherapy. This strategy is based on a novel molecule developed by Sprint Bioscience, SB02024, which successfully inhibits autophagy. These ground-breaking findings were published in April in the prestigious journal “Science Advances”.
Prof Simone Niclou, Dr Anne Schuster and Eliane Klein from the NORLUX Neuro-Oncology Laboratory at DONC explored the molecular mechanisms responsible for the ability of Glioblastoma (GBM) to infiltrate and spread to healthy brain tissue. They brought forward the novel role of protein ZFAND3 in promoting the transcription of several genes that stimulate the invasion of GBM cells in the surrounding parenchyma. The findings were published in the journal “Nature Communications”.
Dr Ala’a Alkerwi from DoPH contributed to a global public health study on cholesterol, which was published in Nature in June 2020. The paper brings forward a major global repositioning of lipid-related risk over the past four decades. Specifically, non-optimal cholesterol trends shifted from being a distinct feature of high-income western countries to being a significant burden in low- and middle-income nations.
In November 2020, Dr Brice Appenzeller of the Human Biomonitoring (HBRU) research unit at DoPH, in partnership with the University of Luxembourg and with the support of the Kriibskrank Kanner Foundation, launched a study aiming to assess the exposure to pollutants of children residing in Luxembourg through the analysis of their hair.
In July 2020, the Laboratoire national de santé (LNS) and the Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg (IBBL) launched MIRABANK. This joint project, which is based on the creation of a bank of multi-resistant bacterial strains in Luxembourg, was selected following a European call for tender launched in May 2019 on behalf of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
In January 2020, the new Horizon 2020 project “REVERT” was launched, aiming to leverage artificial intelligence to identify a predictive algorithm to be used in the treatment of patients with advanced colorectal cancer. Under this collaborative translational study, IBBL will contribute to developing new Standard Operating Procedures for pre-analytical and analytical validation protocols to measure classic and novel biomarkers.
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