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Press release– Leenaards Foundation 2024 Science Prize

Leenaards Foundation announces two winners of its 2024 Science Prize

Nearly CHF 1.4 million awarded to support biomedical researchin the Lake Geneva region

 

Lausanne, Monday 26 February 2024. The Leenaards Foundation will hand out its annual Science Prize, together with nearly CHF 1.4 million in award money, to two research groups in the Lake Geneva region at a public ceremony on 21 March. The first research group, which is headed by Dr. Angela Koutsokera (CHUV), is exploring the use of bacteriophages – a type of virus widely found in wastewater – to tackle antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, especially those affecting the respiratory system. The second group, led by Prof. Gilles Allali (CHUV/UNIL), is focusing on early diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, a condition that’s largely unknown to the public despite being the second most common type of neurodegenerative dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Prof. Allali’s group is using robotics to examine the relationship between artificially induced hallucinations – a key symptom of the disease – and changes in brain activity.

The awards ceremony will be open to the public (sign-up required). It will also include a talk by Dr. Alexandre Mayran from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), who will explore the various societal, ethical and technological challenges arising from the development of synthetic embryos.


Treating infections with bacteria-killing viruses: Using bacteriophages to neutralize antibiotic-resistant infections

 

The research team is led by Dr. Angela Koutsokera (CHUV,center), Prof. Alexandre Persat (EPFL, left), Dr. Grégory Resch (CHUV, right)  © Alban Kakulya

 “We urgently need to develop new treatments like phagotherapy to address the often-severe complications caused by antibiotic resistance, especially in patients with cystic fibrosis or bronchiectasis,” says Dr. Koutsokera, from the Division of Pulmonology at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). The research group she leads is one of the winners of the Leenaards Foundation 2024 Science Prize. The team also includes Dr. Grégory Resch, a researcher at the CHUV’s Center for Research and Innovation in Clinical Pharmaceutical Sciences (CRISP). “Antibiotic resistance is responsible for around 25,000 deaths each year in Europe alone,” says Dr. Resch. “With predictions that it could cause up to 10 million deaths globally in 2050, we must come up with an approach to help address this major public-health issue. In some cases, patients infected with highly resistant bacterial strains have ended up losing a limb once other treatment options have been exhausted. But in some countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Georgia, the availability of bacteriophage therapy, or phagotherapy, has allowed patients to be treated without amputation.”

Bacteriophages are a type of virus commonly found in wastewater, soil and excrement. Although they’re harmless to humans, they actively hunt down and destroy pathogenic bacteria. This research project – the first of its kind in Switzerland – aims to identify specific bacteriophages capable of attacking the bacteria that cause antibiotic-resistant infections. “Phagotherapy is not a novel concept, but research in this area was set aside when antibiotics became widely available in the 1960s,” says Dr. Koutsokera.

The novelty of the group’s research lies in the fact that their approach takes personalized medicine to new levels: the bacterium is isolated from the patient’s sputum sample then treated with carefully selected bacteriophages. “If a bacteriophage is shown to be particularly effective during the selection process, we receive the virus-and-bacterium pair at my lab, where we run in-vitro tests in organoids – miniature human lungs – developed at EPFL,” says Prof. Alexandre Persat of EPFL’s Microbial Mechanics Lab. These small-scale organs, which are grown in the lab from stem cells to mimic the biological environment found inside the lungs, offer a more effective way to assess the efficacy of potential treatments.

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Lewy body dementia: Improving the detection of neurodegenerative diseases with robotically induced hallucinations

 

The research team is led by Prof. Gilles Allali (CHUV/UNIL, right), with Dr. Fosco Bernasconi (EPFL, left)  © Alban Kakulya

Most people haven’t heard of Lewy body dementia, even though it’s the second most common type of neurodegenerative dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. “An estimated 20% of dementia patients have the condition, which equates to around 40,000 people in Switzerland alone,” says Prof. Gilles Allali, a neurologist and the head of the Leenaards Memory Center at the CHUV. “In reality, that figure is likely a significant underestimate, since the disease receives little public attention and is vastly underdiagnosed.” That’s why this project isn’t just about medical research, it also has a public awareness-raising goal.

Lewy body dementia typically affects people aged 60 and above. It causes motor, cognitive and behavioral symptoms similar to those found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, including hallucinations. “Someone with the disease may describe seeing people in their home or mistaking their own reflection in the mirror for someone else,” says Prof. Allali. “These experiences can sometimes be frightening, and can even cause patients to become violent.” The condition is associated with extremely intense visual hallucinations, which patients tend not to talk about for fear that others will think they’ve gone crazy.

 A key aim of the project is to improve early detection of the disease, which in turn leads to a better prognosis and prevents dementia patients from being incorrectly diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. Administering the wrong treatment can potentially result in early death, as was regrettably the case with the actor Robin Williams.“Using robotics, we can induce so-called ‘dormant’ hallucinations and detect the early weak signals of this neurodegenerative disease, possibly years before the first major symptoms appear,” says Prof. Allali. Dr. Fosco Bernasconi, a neuroscientist at EPFL’s Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience who’s working with Prof. Allali on this research project, adds: “Robotics technology allows us to induce hallucinations and quantify them by studying the associated changes in brain activity. This qualitative measurement capability will enable us to predict cognitive decline, in the same way as we use blood tests to screen for other diseases.”

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About the Leenaards Science 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, a group comprising the CHUV, the University of Lausanne (UNIL), Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and EPFL. 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.

Projects that pass the initial jury selection stage are peer-reviewed by a panel of international experts. The 2023 call for proposals attracted more than 30 applications from research groups across the five eligible institutions. For independence reasons, the majority of jury members are affiliated with institutions outside the Lake Geneva region. The jury is chaired by François Verrey, Professor Emeritus of Physiology at the University of Zurich.


Leenaards Foundation awards ceremony

6pm on 21 March 2024

Portrait : © Alain Herzog

 “Lab-grown embryos: ethical or technological challenges?”
(talk given in French)

Following the presentation of the awards, Dr. Alexandre Mayran (EPFL) will give a talk on recent advances in synthetic embryo development. He will touch on both the ethical issues posed by this field of research and the immense promise it holds, including the possibility of producing replacement organs or saving threatened species from extinction. Dr. Mayran, whose research focuses on how these pseudo-embryos could revolutionize life sciences, will explore the scientific and societal challenges posed by progress in the field, and seek to clarify the blurred line between fantasy and reality.

The awards ceremony will be open to the public (sign-up required)
It will take place at 6pm on Thursday, 21 March, in the Agora building at the CHUV in Lausanne (leenaards.ch/rdvsciences24)


For more information

Please contact Adrienne Prudente, the head of communications at the Leenaards Foundation, to arrange interviews with the prize winners, the event speaker or representatives of the Leenaards Foundation.

+41 (0)21 351 25 55

communication@leenaards.ch

Documents for the press: www.leenaards.ch/presse

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