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Press release – Leenaards Foundation 2022 Science Prize

Lausanne, April 28 2022

Leenaards Foundation 2022 Science Prize

 Obesity and osteoarthritis:
The unexpected link between fat cells and degenerative joint disease


The Leenaards Foundation has awarded its Science Prize to a research group based in the Lake Geneva region. The prize, worth CHF 750,000 in funding for translational biomedical research, will be presented at the Leenaards Foundation Science Prize awards ceremony held on 12 May. The winning project, led by Dr. Jeroen Geurts from Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and Prof. Bart Deplancke from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), builds on an observed link between body fat and joint disease. It has long been believed that osteoarthritis in obese individuals is due to excess weight placing mechanical stress on cartilage and bone. But the team’s findings point to a different cause: the role of fatty tissue in bone marrow.

At the awards ceremony, Dr. Olivia Braillard and Dr. Mayssam Nehme from Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) will deliver a lecture on the post-COVID-19 era, sharing their experience and research in integrative treatment of the disease with the backing of the Leenaards Integrative Health & Society initiative. The event will also feature a humanities-focused presentation by archaeologist and historian Patrick Maxime Michel from the University of Lausanne (UNIL), who will explain how new technology – and 3D modeling in particular – is helping to preserve collective memory and build community resilience.

This year’s awards ceremony will be held both online (open to the public) and in person (registration required) at 6pm (CEST) on Thursday, 12 May. The event will take place in the Agora building at the CHUV, in Lausanne (

It has long been known that being overweight – like aging – increases a person’s risk
of developing osteoarthritis and further aggravates the condition. But new explanations for this link are now coming to light.


The research team is led by Dr Jeroen Geurts (CHUV) and Prof. Bart Deplancke (EPFL). Photo ©Alain Herzog; download from:


“Our current research contradicts the long-held view that obese individuals are at greater risk of developing osteoarthritis because the excess weight they carry places strain on the body’s joints and cartilage,” says Dr. Jeroen Geurts, a principal investigator in translational research at CHUV’s Department of Rheumatology. “Instead, our work suggests that the cause lies in the interaction between fat cells and bone.”

The winning research project is a joint effort between Dr. Geurts’ team and scientists from the Laboratory of Systems Biology and Genetics at EPFL, which is led by Prof. Bart Deplancke, the Associate Dean for Innovation at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences. Their work, which takes a biochemical approach, aims to understand the role played by fatty tissue in bone marrow.

“Bone marrow adipocytes have long been seen as inert cells that merely fill up the space inside the bone cavity,” says Prof. Deplancke. “But that view is incorrect. Our research suggests that the lipid metabolism malfunction we observe in obese individuals – where the body struggles to break down fat and turn it into energy – doesn’t just affect energy balance. It also has an impact on bone and cartilage.” Using single-cell sequencing technology developed at Prof. Deplancke’s lab, and drawing on the scientists’ experience in studying the cell composition of fatty tissue, the research team is now able to examine how different cell populations inside bone marrow interact.

Other, recent discoveries by Dr. Geurts and Prof. Deplancke have revealed a striking similarity between changes in the bone marrow beneath cartilage and fatty tissue conditions such as fibrosis, necrosis and other lipid metabolism alterations. “It’s as if the body responds to having surplus energy stored as fat by building bone,” explains Dr. Geurts. “The cartilage hardens and becomes less flexible over time, causing friction and extremely painful inflammation in individuals with osteoarthritis. In the most severe cases, patients will need to undergo joint replacement surgery.”

“Our aim is to better understand the molecular mechanisms behind the plasticity of bone marrow beneath cartilage, while also exploring the mechanisms that lead to degenerative joint disease. We hope that our work will contribute to the development of new therapeutic targets for the treatment of osteoarthritis, a common and particularly burdensome chronic condition.”
Dr. Jeroen Geurts and Prof. Bart Deplancke

About the Leenaards Research Prize

The Leenaards Prize for Translational Biomedical Research is awarded every year to between one and three research projects that bring together researchers from at least two different universities or teaching hospitals in the Lake Geneva region. Projects are selected because they use cutting-edge research to address a clinical problem in an innovative way. This prize also supports translational research projects that combine fundamental and clinical research in order to transform scientific discoveries into medical treatments.


Documents for the press:

Contact person:
Adrienne Prudente
Head of communications at the Fondation Leenaards

Tel.: 021 351 25 55



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