WELBIO about to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

WELBIO is an inter-university life sciences research institute funded by the Walloon Region. est un institut interuniversitaire de recherche subventionné par la Wallonie. Its mission is to support strategic fundamental research with a view to transforming their discoveries into industrial applications in all fields of biotechnology.

Economic growth is intrinsically linked to the development of a knowledge economy. Hence, States and Regions actively support fundamental strategic research as part of their economic development policies. The Walloon Government acknowledged 10 years ago that important initiatives had been taken, e.g. through the so-called Marshall Plan, in order to support research and development, but this support was essentially focusing on “translational” research, i.e. a research aiming at exploiting prior scientific findings. The Government understood that long term success of such a policy required a continuous feed by top-level fundamental scientific research. WELBIO was thus established with the aim to support such “pre-translational” research in the strategic domain of life sciences and biotechnology, a major domain for the economic development of Wallonia. WELBIO was inspired by the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) model which, after 10 years of existence, could already demonstrate its impressive high-level scientific productivity and its commercialization capabilities. VIB was already one of the most renowned institutes in Europe.

WELBIO has a unique position in the continuum that leads from fundamental research to the launch of a new product on the market. It is optimally situated between the broad fundamental university research (funded inter alia by the F.R.S.-FNRS) and the oriented / translational / industrial research instruments of the Walloon Region (including the health cluster BioWin and the Walloon Public Service - Research).

Much younger than the VIB and with a far lower budget, WELBIO can be proud of its achievements. Less than 8 years after the first research projects were initiated, WELBIO has funded and supported 51 research projects, led by 39 principal investigators in 3 universities (ULB, UCLouvain, ULiège). The numerous articles published in the most prestigious journals confirm the scientific excellence of WELBIO research. Just a few recent examples:
-    Benoît Vanhollebeke (Science, 2018) has solved the enigma of the specificity of an ancestral intra-cellular signaling pathway, common to all vertebrates. This finding opens perspectives in particular to open the blood-brain barrier for delivering drugs to the central nervous system.
-    Pierre Close (Nature, 2018) described how malignant melanoma acquire resistence to therapy and how drugs could be designed for eliminating those resistent melanoma.
-    Pierre Vanderhaeghen (Cell Report, 2018) successfully produced neurons from human stem cells and transplanted them in a damaged brain, opening perspectives for brain repair.
-    Cédric Blanpain (Nature, 2018) described the different tumor transition states occurring during skin cancer progression and metastasis and showed how metastasis could be blocked.
-    Michel Georges (Nature, 2018) identified genetic mutations causing chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, opening perspectives for the development of drugs which could be specifically selected for an individual patient (personalised medicine).
-    Jean-François Collet (Plos Biology 2017) unravelled a bacterial defence, opening perspectives for the development of much needed new antibiotics.
-    Benoît Van den Eynde (Nature Communications, 2017) identified a non-cancerous cell type, present in tumours, and protecting these tumours against the immune system. Acting on this mechanism could improve cancer immunotherapy.
WELBIO aims at translating scientific discoveries into industrial applications. 25 invention disclosures have been submitted so far, within the context of 17 research projects. Patent applications were submitted for 12 inventions in a variety of fields: diagnosis and treatment of cancer, treatment of asthma by cellular therapy, treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders, obesity, diabetes and rare diseases. Projects are by definition very much upstream of the value chain and quite some work needs to be done before a new medication, e.g. can reach the market.
Translational or industrial research projects have therefore been initiated :

-    Pierre Roger, in partnership with OncoDNA and thanks to « WALInnov » funding from the Walloon Region, develops a so-called « companion diagnostics ». During his WELBIO project, his team identified a specific modification of a protein involved in the cell cycle, which was essential for a new type of breast cancer treatment to work. Such molecule will only be useful to patients presenting this modification. Identifying these patients is the purpose of the companion diagnostics in development.
-    The work of Pierre Vanderhaeghen, a key opinion leader in the field of neurons and stem cells, forms the foundations of a BioWin health cluster project, led by a consortium of Walloon companies (MastherCell, NCardia et UCB) and 2 university research groups. This project aims to create an industrial activity based on technologies for producing human cortical cells from induced pluripotent stem cells.
-    The work of Pierre Coulie has resulted in a fruitful collaboration with the Belgian biotech argenx and the biopharmaceutical giant AbbVie. This project aims to develop a new cancer immunotherapy. It is the most advanced drug development programme in the WELBIO context. Thanks to this project, WELBIO has obtained its first industrial income, which is used to fund additional research.
Last but not least, a first spin-off company has been launched in April 2018, emerging from a WELBIO project.  ChromaCure’s mission is to discover and develop first-in-class small molecule therapeutics for unmet needs in oncology. It is based on the work of Cédric Blanpain. . Cette entreprise, dénommée ChromaCure, est active dans le domaine de la thérapie du cancer, sur base des travaux de Cédric Blanpain. ChromaCure is based in Gosselies and benefits from EUR 17 M financial support thanks to international and Belgian investors.
WELBIO funds basic research projects for which the result is, by definition, uncertain, and for which several years are needed between the start of the project and the realisation of any value-creation activities. The VIB example in Flanders demonstrates how instrumental fundamental strategic research is for the socio-economic development of a region. In 23 years of existence, VIB acquired a global scientific excellence reputation which has attracted several biotech companies in Flanders. The VIB has also created 20 spin-offs. More than 1400 jobs were created. Thanks to the many agreements with the industry, the VIB obtains today around 30 millions EUR of industrial income per year. The Flemish Government funds the VIB with a 59 millions EUR subvention. It currently runs with an annual budget of 99 millions. The WELBIO subvention from the Walloon Government is limited to 6 millions EUR per year. In 10 years, Wallonia has invested 50 millions EUR in WELBIO. As Wallonia can start harvesting the fruits of this investment, it is essential to ensure the continuity and stability of WELBIO. Without WELBIO, the pipeline to translational research in Wallonia will dry out and our best researchers will loose a major funding source which enables them to reach an international excellence level while remaining in our universities.

Last update : 25/9/2018 - Vie privée - Printable version -  © 2018 WELBIO

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