Mission Lucidity: a tool-driven response to neurodegeneration
September 6, 2022
This blog post is part of VIB Neuroscience in the spotlight.
Researchers from VIB, KU Leuven, UZ Leuven and imec have joined forces in the interdisciplinary partnership 'Mission Lucidity'. Their goal? To develop new technologies that will revolutionize the research, diagnosis and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia.
The dementia pandemic
More than 50 million people worldwide suffer from neurodegenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The cost and especially the human toll of these diseases are staggering. Often the symptoms gradually worsen into dementia, a major cause of disability, reduced quality of life and death, which has been declared a global public health priority by the WHO. It is estimated that one in five people will develop dementia at some point in their lives, and everyone is at high risk of being indirectly affected as an informal caregiver. As yet, there are no curable treatments.
This bleak picture emphasizes the great need for basic research and medical innovation, but the hundreds of classic clinical trials on Alzheimer's drugs have so far led to very little. Perhaps it is time for a new approach.
A scientist, an engineer and a doctor walk into a bar ... This time, not the beginning of a silly joke, but the description of a typical after-work drink at ‘Mission Lucidity’. Under that name, VIB, KU Leuven, UZ Leuven and imec launched a new interdisciplinary partnership in 2018 to do ground-breaking research on neurodegeneration, combined with high-level fundraising and lobbying.
Prof. Dr. Wim Robberecht, CEO of UZ Leuven explains the name: “In the next decades, we will be confronted with a tsunami of chronic illnesses due to aging of the population. Mental disorders are responsible for the largest portion of these chronic diseases, with dementia posing the greatest challenge. This is what has to be decoded, to give people back what is their most human characteristic: their lucidity.”
Because of the proximity of the four partners in Leuven, the idea had been brewing for some time to set up a joint initiative to tackle neurodegenerative diseases in a structured way and across multiple research disciplines. Especially the wonderful world of nanotechnology, of which imec is the world-leading R&D center, opens promising doors for scientific and medical innovation in decoding brain diseases.
It didn't take long for Mission Lucidity to turn its attention to technological innovations, following the same conviction as Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner: “Progress in science depends on new techniques, new discoveries and new ideas, probably in that order.”
Prof. Dr. Mathieu Vandenbulcke, geriatric psychiatrist (UZ Leuven, KU Leuven) and scientific chairman of Mission Lucidity: "We want to build bridges between the worlds of basic scientists, clinicians and engineers, and try to speak a common language. On a personal level, my main motivation is to improve the lives of patients, but I find that this interdisciplinary approach greatly expands my own world. As a clinician, it is really inspiring to be able to contribute to fundamental scientific insights and to brainstorm about which technological developments could have the greatest impact."
Five core projects
Shortly after the launch of Mission Lucidity, a call for innovative projects that combine fundamental research, (neuro)technological development and clinical application to neurodegenerative disease followed. A team of external experts assessed all projects on relevance, impact and credibility. This led to the current diverse and complementary research portfolio that was encouraged from the top in a kind of holistic vision, but developed by the research teams bottom-up. At the moment, 88 researchers (from professors to postdocs, doctoral students and technical staff) in Leuven and far beyond are connected to one or more Mission Lucidity projects.
The five core projects address today's key challenges in neurodegenerative disease research. First of all, neurodegeneration is a slow and very gradual process: the changes in the brain start decades before the first clinical symptoms appear. This means that diagnosis today often comes too late, when the disease is already advanced, and the damage is irreparable. In addition, the brain is complex and difficult to access: we cannot just collect human brain tissue, so preclinical research is mainly based on less than ideal animal models or cell cultures. And finally, neurodegenerative diseases are very heterogeneous: not every patient shows the same course of disease or the same symptoms. There are dozens of genetic, environmental and other risk factors, so the exact cause of the disease can also differ from person to person, meaning that personalized treatments or preventive steps are needed.
Dr. Jenny Ceccarini, programme development officer: “Our main projects focus on some long-standing open needs in preclinical and clinical neurodegeneration research. Although every Mission Lucidity project addresses a different aspect, they are all interconnected. Each project aims to develop a new tool or technology that can be used universally in the lab or in the clinic for research into one specific or several neurodegenerative diseases. For example, we are developing a personal genetic risk profile linked to the underlying Alzheimer processes, ultimately intended for population screening and prevention. We are also working on improved brain organoid models(or neural organoids) for basic research firstly applied in Alzheimer´s disease, as well as a 'brain on a chip' model to unravel the disease mechanisms of Parkinson's disease and to classify patients into subgroups for targeted therapeutic treatments. For applied clinical research, two other projects focus on retinal imaging to detect Alzheimer's disease at an early stage, and minimally invasive brain stimulation to prevent cognitive decline in dementia. They could respectively revolutionize both early diagnosis and intervention in Alzheimer’s disease.”
International playing field and lobbying
Neurodegenerative diseases are a global pandemic: we are all in the same boat. The Mission Lucidity team firmly believes that interdisciplinary cooperation is essential and should not be limited by national borders. All core projects have at least one international partner.
In 2020, Mission Lucidity joined forces with leading neuroscientists from three other top European research institutes: the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), the Paris Brain Institute (ICM) and the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI). A new alliance was born. Under the name 'CURE-ND', the four partners want to Catalyse a United Response in Europe to Neurodegenerative Diseases. All four institutions are committed to sharing their expertise via different activities (symposia, workshops, brainstorm meetings, events) and to speaking with one strong voice to advance brain research and end its historical underfunding in Europe. Hereto, they have already written several letters to the European Commission and many other lobbying actions are being planned.
“Collaborating across borders to address neurodegeneration is more important than ever. I’m proud that these leading institutes are taking responsibility for driving forward much-needed progress,” says Prof. Bart De Strooper, Director of the UK DRI, group leader at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research and member of Mission Lucidity’s scientific leadership.
Supported by visionary donors
At the helm of the steering committee is serial entrepreneur and engineer Urbain Vandeurzen, who also pulls the successful KU Leuven fundraising campaign Opening the Future. “I insisted on bringing an entrepreneurial approach to Mission Lucidity, because it's all about research management: developing a vision of the future, formulating an inspiring goal that excites people, and gathering the best possible talent. And, of course, making sure all the necessary resources are available. It is important that we are result-oriented in this: we do not aim for small incremental steps forward, but want to fundamentally understand the problem of neurodegeneration and create a lasting impact."
Inspired by the American philanthropic model, one of Mission Lucidity's goals is to open up new opportunities for international funding through large foundations and individual donors.
"The funds obtained through philanthropy can be seen as high-risk, high-reward funding," Vandeurzen explains. "We actually give confidence to research teams, on the only condition that they strive for excellence and look for breakthroughs. Philanthropy is what allows us to think in the long term and do truly next-generation research, thanks to the creation of levers. It is simple: the efforts and resources spent now will be paid back a thousandfold if we continue to invest them in this kind of important research. Thanks to the backing of visionary donors interested in the neurodegeneration field, the lives of millions of patients and their families can be changed forever."