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Enabling Technologies Hotels programme helps LUMC with development of new technology for Rheumatoid Arthritis research

The ZonMw Enabling Technologies Hotels programme, a.o. supported by Top Sector LSH, connects researchers to service-oriented facilities with high-end technologies. Short-term public-private projects of maximum one year with a maximum budget of 30,000 euros can be applied for in the programme. One of the granted projects in the first round came from the Rheumatology Department at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC). Here, prof. dr. René Toes and his team are exploring a unique technology that can analyse rheumatoid arthritis specific glycosylation sites of the anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA). With this technique, LUMC can study the biological function and activities of the glycosylation of ACPA, which may be linked to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Ultimately, the results could lead to new prognostic or diagnostic markers in early stages of RA.

RA affects many people. It is a chronic autoimmune disease characterised by the presence of auto-antibodies and inflammation leading to disability. Anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA) are highly RA specific and seem to have an increased size due to a larger sugar structure, known as glycan. So far, René Toes (professor in Experimental Rheumatology and head of the laboratory of LUMC’s Rheumatology Department) and his group found this large sugar structure in all 50 RA patients examined on 90% of the ACPA molecules. They wanted to characterise this sugar chain to gain a better understanding of this structure, which may be linked to onset of the disease and could therefore be used as a prognostic or diagnostic marker in early stages of RA. With the support of the ETH programme , Toes gained access to specific mass spectrometry technology to help identify these glycans. ZonMw partners with the Dutch Techcentre for Lifesciences (DTL), which provides up-to-date-information about the Technology Hotels on its website. Toes collaborated with the Technology Hotel “Center for Proteomics and Metabolomics” of prof. dr. Manfred Wuhrer at LUMC.  

The collaboration with Wuhrer and his team offered not just the mass spectrometry technology, but also their acquired knowledge and expertise. The collaboration started with the research question of Toes in 2014 and is already paying off. The ETH project has resulted in the development of a unique methodology to analyse the sugar chains in ACPAs. The Belgian company UCB Pharma joined the project to help optimise the technology by producing specific glycosylated ACPAs.

Toes: “When I started working at the Rheumatology Department 17 years ago the waiting rooms in the hospital were large, with plenty of space between the chairs to allow for all patients in wheelchairs. Nowadays, the waiting rooms are much smaller since wheelchairs are not that common anymore.” This illustrates the considerable developments that have taken place within rheumatology during the past two decades. Looking ahead, Toes hopes to identify the autoimmune response at an early stage. This would present early intervention opportunities that could prevent the development of the destructive phase of RA, or maybe disease initiation completely.

“The ultimate aim is to stop the development of RA and eliminate the disease.” 

The group of Toes is committed to contribute their bit to fight RA and have long-term support from the Dutch Arthritis Foundation (Reumafonds). The ETH project is just a small part of this fight. However, the research has continued in various ways. Recently, Toes was awarded a ZonMw TOP subsidy worth 675,000 euros. This will be used to realise a longer term collaboration with the Technology Hotel. A colleague in the department of Toes, Dr. Hans Ulrich Scherer, has also received a ‘Clinical Fellows’ grant worth 160,000 euros.

When Toes is asked to think of someone who could benefit from an ETH grant he replies: “Everyone.” And he continues: “The ETH programme gives access to technologies that we do not possess at our clinical department. Gaining access to various technologies helps to answer our research questions and accelerates our research.” And he has certainly spread the word in his own lab. In the second round of the programme three ETH projects were awarded to investigators from his group. This is making it possible to use high-end technologies in Leiden, Groningen, Nijmegen and Amsterdam ranging from RNA-sequencing, B cell receptor analyses to high-throughput analyses of the recognition pattern of (de)glycosylated ACPA molecules.

Overall, the ETH programme has demonstrated clear added value over the past few years. A total of 67 ETH projects has been awarded in the first two rounds. The results from the third round will be announced before the end of February 2016 and the ZonMw programme team estimates that at least 26 projects can be awarded within the available budget resulting in almost 100 ETH projects in these three rounds. The success rate for applicants in these rounds has been consistently around 40-50%.

The programme is executed by ZonMw in partnership with DTL and financed by ZonMw and NWO Earth & Life Sciences. Projects need to be carried out in Top Sectors Agri&Food, Horticulture and Starting Materials or Life Sciences & Health. The programme will be continued in 2016/2017 and the next call is planned to open at the end of 2016.

For more information about the programme please contact dr. ir. Sander Hougee, programme officer ETH. 

For more information about DTL Technology Hotels and the listing of your hotel for future participation in the ETH programme, please contact Merlijn van Rijswijk, program manager DTL technologies. 

Photo credits: Jeroen Dietz & Reumafonds

“We are forming a consortium which will screen all CF patients in the Netherlands, collect samples from all their tissues and realise one central living biobank.”

Together with the KNAW and University Medical Center Utrecht the Hubrecht Institute founded the non-for-profit organisation Hubrecht Organoid Technology (The HUB). The HUB builds on this living biobanks of organoids and develops assays for drug screening and validation. Not only for CF patients, but also for cancer patients. Due to the diversity and complexity of cancer it will take longer to realise a comparable cancer biobank. However, more than 20 pharmaceutical companies are already affiliated, which brings the HUB a step closer to their national goal. 

National Icon
In addition to his research and clinical work for the HUB, Clevers has published articles in Cell, Science and Nature. His National Icon title helped Clevers’ research to become even more visible. “Conversations with health insurances and hospitals were made easier,” Clevers confirms.

And Clevers continues
Just recently Clevers became scientific director of the Princess Máxima Center for pediatric oncology. In this center healthcare, research, education and training are combined to improve survival rates and the quality of life for children with cancer. The care is focused on the patients and their families, and particularly on the patient's development. Eighty children have their own room next to a room for their family. At the center, patient-related research is carried out, where the research and the researchers literally join patients at their bedside. The research center will provide around 400 research jobs. Curious what the building and the in-house research center will look like in 2017? Please visit the website of the Princess Máxima Center.


Photo credits: Sander Heezen

There are many programmes that support entrepreneurs in Life Sciences & Health. Since Access to Funding is on of Top Sector LSH priorities some examples are illustrated here, run by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.

MIT arrangement
PortaVita and Helpline explain how the MIT arrangement helped their enterprise.

Tom Oostrom (Director Dutch Kidney Foundation), member of the Advisory Board: “We believe in the partnerschip between health foundations and Tops Sector LSH to make the difference for patients.”