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Luxembourg paves the way for a new era of healthcare digitalisation

How can digital tools be integrated into healthcare processes? How should data be visualised to personalise patient care? These are among the many questions that Professor Jochen Klucken will be analysing over the next five years. 

Supported by a 3.3 MEUR FNR PEARL Chair, Prof. Dr Klucken will develop digital health concepts for Luxembourg through a joint research programme involving the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine of the University of Luxembourg, the Luxembourg Institute of Health and the Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg.

Towards real-life healthcare data

Data-driven medicine and innovative digital tools are to add to existing healthcare procedures and change the way patients, healthcare providers, and researchers will work together in the near future. New digital patient-centred healthcare services will address the patients’ needs, continuously monitor and accompany individual patient journeys, and support healthcare providers in making clinical decisions. Real-life healthcare data will become available, and thus, add value. Its application in medicine has an enormous potential to reduce disease burden, improve healthcare and generate new solutions and services.

Yet, aspects pertaining to the integration into healthcare pathways and the evidence proving the benefit of these new services for patients, healthcare providers and society are not sufficiently clear – this will therefore be the focus of the FNR Digital Medicine Research Project.

New evaluation methods to shape the rising age of digitalisation in medicine

Composed of experts in medicine, data science, health economy, IT engineering and social science, the Digital Medicine Group (Dmed), led by Professor Dr Klucken, will address the medical benefits, structural and procedural changes, and social acceptance of the resulting digital healthcare services.

“We want to understand how patient-centred, personalised healthcare technologies can be tailored to patient needs and integrated into the existing healthcare structures and procedures. We believe that shaping the rising age of digitalisation in medicine requires the development of new evaluation methods.”

Prof Dr Klucken

Enabling fast, efficient and transparent information for patients and their healthcare teams

Digital Medicine Research will use Parkinson’s disease as an example to develop and unlock the potential of digitalisation. Building on the experiences of Prof. Dr Klucken with sensor-based gait analysis in Parkinson’s disease, the first task will be to understand how patients, doctors and therapists could make use of the “data” that are continuously recorded in the patient @home environment. From these first experiences, the use of other patient-centred digital tools, including wearable sensors and smartphone apps, will be evaluated and integrated into the management of the everyday healthcare process.

Thus, not only patients and caregivers, but also doctors, therapists and professional care-providers are warmly welcomed to participate in shaping and evaluating new digitally-supported integrated healthcare management processes.

The Digital Medicine Group will align with digital health strategies in Luxembourg to combine innovative digital healthcare technology solutions and health informatics with the needs of patients and healthcare services providers.

We will contribute to the innovation in digital healthcare solutions and improve healthcare by enabling fast, efficient and transparent information for patients and their healthcare teams.

Prof Dr Klucken

Luxembourg, a unique environment to shape digitalisation process in medicine

Luxembourg provides a unique environment to shape this digitalisation process in medicine. It boasts a comprehensive healthcare ecosystem with close interaction of policymakers, healthcare providers, academic institutions and society/patients. This also aligns with the present changes in medical education, specializations in medicine and the interdisciplinary research activities in biomedicine and medical engineering underpinning the multidisciplinary nature of digitalisation in medicine.

The FNR PEARL Chair in Digital Medicine will support this process with a strong understanding of patient-centered applications and integration into existing and future healthcare services.

The Digital Medicine Group was set up in March 2021 and works in very close collaboration with the National Centre for Excellence in Research on Parkinson’s Disease project. It is supported by the FNR-PEARL Programme at the Luxembourg Center for Systems Biomedicine of the University of Luxembourg, the Luxembourg Institute of Health and the dMed Research Clinic at the Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg.

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In conversation with our young researchers: Pauline Mencke

Neurodegenerative diseases and cancer affect millions of people worldwide. Translational neuroscientist Pauline Mencke has chosen Luxembourg to study a gene that is involved both in Parkinson’s disease and the brain cancer Glioblastoma multiforme.

Pauline Mencke, 3rd year PhD candidate at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB), aims to identify common mechanisms shared by the diseases. Her research would allow for the identification of a common pathway and potential drug target, ultimately improving the outlook for patients.

What do Parkinson’s disease and Glioblastoma multiforme have in common?

Pauline Mencke strives to understand the gene PARK7 encoding the protein DJ-1 to find common disease mechanisms

According to the biologist, the etiology is not yet fully understood because of the complexity and heterogeneity of PD. This is why there is no cure for the disease.

“In the same manner, GBM is a very heterogeneous and complex disease, meaning that it is very difficult to identify individual causes and treatment strategies that are tumour specific,” explains Pauline Mencke.

In the last years, there has been increasing evidence that a specific gene encoding the protein DJ-1 is associated with both diseases. As part of her PhD project, biologist Pauline Mencke is studying the role of DJ-1 in more detail:

“We know that genes that are upregulated in cancer are frequently downregulated in PD and vice versa.”, Pauline explains.

Interestingly, increased expression of some PD-associated genes like one called ‘PARK7 (DJ-1)’ influence cell proliferation and metabolism, meaning they support tumorigenesis – the formation of tumours.

“In PD, the effect reverses, as loss of DJ-1 protein function causes PD. In the scope of my PhD project, we are simultaneously studying the role and function of DJ-1 in PD and GBM to better understand its role in both conditions.”

Making collaboration a source of progress

Collaboration is integral to Pauline’s studies. Indeed, she cooperates with several scientists for her project, both in Luxembourg and abroad.

Case in point: the PD-patient derived iPSCs [stem cells] that she is using for her project were obtained from fibroblasts from a collaboration with Prof. Dr. med. Vincenzo Bonifati from Rotterdam.

“For the CRISPR Cas9 mediated correction of the mutation in the iPSCs, I profited from the expertise of Dr. Javier Jarazo from the LCSB. I am also collaborating with ATTRACT Fellow Dr. Johannes Meiser from the LIH, who is helping me through his expertise in metabolomics.

In collaboration with Dr. Carole Linster from the LCSB, Pauline strives to identify enzymatic functions of DJ-1.

Pauline is also working hand in hand with Prof. Dr. med. Michael Platten from the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) in Heidelberg.

Why Luxembourg as a research destination?

“I have studied molecular medicine in Regensburg, Germany, and from the beginning of my studies, I was interested in translational medicine, studying causes and mechanisms of diseases to help to identify better treatments. During my master studies in Luxembourg, I met Prof. Dr. med. Rejko Krüger and learned about his excellent research. This is why I decided to do my PhD in his highly interdisciplinary translational group.”

— Pauline Mencke, 3rd year PhD candidate at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB). Her PhD is supported by an AFR grant from the FNR.

Read more about the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine.

Extracts from Spotlight on Young Researchers: The role a gene plays in neurodegeneration and cancer

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Luxembourg hosts international flagship cancer epidemiology conference

Bringing together about 150 international scientists, clinicians, healthcare professionals and policymakers from 17 nations, the 45th edition of the Group of Cancer Epidemiology and Registration in Latin Language Countries (GRELL) conference takes place in Luxembourg in a fully virtual format.

Organised in Luxembourg for the first time by the National Cancer Registry of Luxembourg (RNC) at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), the meeting features several prominent speakers, providing an opportunity to discuss the latest developments in the field of
cancer epidemiology with a particular focus on COVID-19 and cancer, as well as childhood and adolescent cancers.

National and international prominent speakers in Luxembourg

The three-day event gathers prominent speakers, who are addressing some of the key clinical challenges related to cancer.

Some of the national and international speakers and moderators include:

The association aims to coordinate the activities of the “Group for Epidemiology and Cancer Registry in Latin Laguage Coutries” (GRELL), gathered since 1976.

GRELL promotes epidemiological cancer research, mainly through the registration of cases in geographically defined populations.

Visit Luxembourg Institute of Health to know more.

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Vocal Biomarkers: What our voice tells us about our health

A Research Luxembourg team has published an overview on the use of voice monitoring in Digital Health.

A voice reveals a lot about a person’s health: Does it sound strong? Does it sound weak? Is it hoarse? Are there indications of pain or fatigue? Modern digital technologies have recently made it possible to detect the smallest changes in the voice. But now, more research is needed to make the results of this voice monitoring usable for medical and diagnostic purposes.

©Michal Czyz / Unsplash

From research to clinical practice

To this end, a team at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) led by Dr. Guy Fagherazzi, director of the Department of Population Health and head of the Deep Digital Phenotyping Research Unit, has written a review on the topic of “vocal biomarkers”. In this paper, the research team describes the state of the art of voice analysis for health purposes and the evaluation of speech recordings with the help of artificial intelligence. The scientists have also described a pipeline in which the corresponding techniques can be coordinated and used for all the way up to medical applications. They have thus created an important basis for systematically advancing voice analysis in the field of digital health and making it ready for use in clinical practice. The publication “Voice For Health: The Use Of Vocal Biomarkers From Research To Clinical Practice” was published on April 16th in the journal “Digital Biomarkers“.  

In the age of analogue medicine, a person would go to the doctor when he or she felt unwell. The doctor would perform an examination, make a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment for the patient. Until the next visit to the doctor, there was a period during which no one knew the patient’s exact state of health. But times are changing, as Dr. Guy Fagherazzi says: “We can now also use digital technologies to monitor a patient’s condition between two visits to the doctor – and intervene if his or her condition should deteriorate.” According to Fagherazzi, a key to this is the human voice. “If a person’s state of health changes, this immediately affects the voice,” the scientist says. The changes may be barely perceptible to the human ear. But digital technologies and artificial intelligence can measurably detect them as useful markers for diagnostic and medical purposes.

Evaluating voice recordings with artificial intelligence

At LIH, this is an important new field of research. There are several projects addressing this topic, which hope to make digital voice analysis usable for combating COVID-19, among other things. “The first thing we did was to assess how far research in this field has already come,” says Fagherazzi. Together with his team and colleagues from the University of Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), he conducted a comprehensive literature review. The researchers learned which techniques are suitable for recording voices and how the data can be collected and stored. They compiled current methods for processing and evaluating voice recordings with the help of artificial intelligence, and identified which vocal biomarkers – which characteristics of the voice – can already be used to diagnose diseases and determine the state of health.

Describing the current health status is, however, only half the journey the LIH researchers decided to embark on. “We have also described in our paper how the different techniques need to be brought together and developed so that the use of vocal biomarkers becomes relevant for clinical practice,” Fagherazzi says.

“We will now be taking these steps into practice within the framework of various clinical projects running at LIH and its cooperation partners”

Several projects in the framework of the COVID-19

Two of these projects are related to COVID-19: in Predi-COVID, COVID-19 patients and their relatives are being systematically examined in order to identify biomarkers and risk factors associated with disease severity. In CDCVA, a project led by the University of Luxembourg and LIST in association with LIH, approaches are being researched to detect COVID-19 using cough and voice analyses. A third project, called CoLive Voice, will soon be launched to collect voice samples from volunteers all over the world. The goal of CoLive Voice is to advance voice-based diagnosis and symptom monitoring for a wide range of diseases, from cancer and diabetes to mental health and Parkinson’s disease.

Through all these projects, Fagherazzi hopes not only to gain new insights into digital voice monitoring, but also to ensure proximity to clinical practice:

“Vocal biomarkers will only become useful if we have this connection with clinics.”

For the future, he has three groups of key stakeholders in mind. The first is doctors who will be able to use voice analysis to monitor the condition and symptoms of their patients remotely, even when they are at home. The second is people who want to monitor their own current state of health using an app and voice samples. And the third group is pharmaceutical companies that can use the new techniques to capture better real-life data on the condition of their participants and on the tolerability and efficacy of new active substances in clinical trials. “We have now published a key paper,” Fagherazzi says. “But,” he adds with a wry smile, “more than anything else, the paper is the basis for a lot of work that now lies ahead of us”.  

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10 years building colorectal cancer collection in Luxembourg: an additional tool for translational research

The collection of tumour samples from various Luxembourg hospitals has enabled to launch several research projects, including European and international ones, which already present very promising results.

Initiated in 2011 by the University of Luxembourg and the Integrated Biobank of Luxembourg (IBBL) as a concerted action against colorectal cancer (CRC), the collection of tumour samples from various Luxembourg hospitals has enabled to launch several research projects which already present very promising results for the treatment of colorectal cancer patients.

Prof. Serge Haan and Dr. Elisabeth Letellier from the Department of Life Sciences and Medicine (DLSM) at the University of Luxembourg who launched the project in 2011 explain in more details the importance of such a collection.

Dr Elisabeth Letellier et Prof. Dr Serge Haan (Photo: University of Luxembourg)

How did the collection start?

In 2010, we gathered with Dr. Jos Even from the Laboratoire National de Santé (LNS) and the scientific management team from the IBBL to investigate colorectal cancer by setting up a high-quality tissue collection from colon cancer patients in Luxembourg. IBBL, in the context of its mission of serving the Luxembourg research community, decided to make this collection one of its strategic initiatives. The project started with the support of the Fondation Cancer and the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR).

Over the years, the collection has grown significantly with the launch of several research projects and the support of many partners such as the Laboratoire National de Santé (LNS), the Centre d’Investigation et d’Épidémiologie Clinique (CIEC/LIH), the Centre Hospitalier Emile Mayrisch (CHEM).

What is the current status of the collection?

Over the past years, we have established an ongoing collection of tumour tissue samples from CRC patients, assembling high quality samples of over 170 patients. This collection contains a multitude of sample types, such as serum, plasma, immune cells, stool and tumour tissue and normal counterparts from the same patients. Clinical parameters are available for all samples (age, gender, tumour location, survival, diet surveys, therapies, etc.), allowing for studies, which can generate highly valuable translational findings. Pre-analytical factors, such as the cold and warm ischemic time, the Bristol score, as well as dietary questionnaires are collected along with the samples.

We have a follow-up for these patients every year up to 5 years and clinical data is collected for more than 10 years. As the progression of CRC takes over 10 years, samples and data (survival, treatment etc.) covering 10 years are required to have a clinical relevant collection. This is why establishing such a cohort is a future-oriented project which will yield a lot of important translational findings in the domain of gastrointestinal cancers over the next years.

What is its value?

The collection allows generating results that can be translated into a clinical setting. Importantly, this cohort has a unique added value, based on (i) complete sets of sample types, (ii) full preanalytical documentation and characterisation, (iii) longitudinal follow-up samples, (iv) extended clinical data annotations, (v) quality control measurements. As we collect the tumour cells as well as the different cells of the tumour microenvironment, we can generate “small tumours” in the lab which nicely recapitulate the original tumour. These models allow us to study the mechanisms underlying tumour initiation as well as progression but also the development of novel drugs that not only target the tumour cells but also its microenvironment. This is crucial as the past years have clearly demonstrated that the tumour microenvironment plays a key role in tumour progression. Building up these complex tumour models from a patient’s material allows to develop drugs that are specific for this patient. In essence, it fosters personalised medicine.

Over the past years, we have acquired extensive knowledge in the exploitation of the results generated with the samples of the cohort. For example, by using our CRC cohort, we have identified promising biomarkers with a strong prognostic value in early CRC stages. One of our recently identified biomarkers has led to the filing of a patent on novel biomarkers for cancer diagnosis, prediction, or staging. Together with the IBBL, we obtained a Proof of Concept funding from the FNR to test one of the identified biomarkers for clinical use.

What is the future of the collection?

We have already initiated in collaboration with different groups at the University but also the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) and international partners several research projects which are using the samples from the cohort or the cultures derived from them. As an example, IBBL was invited to join a European project, partly based on the value of our collection. These tools are important to generate high translational results. In addition, we have established a biobank at the University which contains 3D spheroid cultures, organoids, as well as cells of the tumour microenvironment such as fibroblasts. This biobank can be used by researchers to perform mechanistic studies as well as drug profiling or biomarker studies.

We would like to expand this cohort and involve more hospitals as for example the Hôpitaux Robert Schuman, Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg and Centre Hospitalier du Nord. Our future aim is to include this cohort into the National Cancer Plan and further develop it as a national cohort that can be used by all researchers in Luxembourg and abroad.

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From lab to startup: LuxAI and QTrobot – a robot to help children with autism

Luxembourg start-up LuxAI, with their socially assistive robot QTrobot, has been making waves on an international level since it was created. Discover here how QTrobot came to be and how parents can now have a QTrobot at home.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates around 1 in 59 children worldwide have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with autism have trouble communicating, as well as trouble understanding what other people think and feel. This makes it is hard for them to express themselves with e.g. words, gestures, facial expressions, and touch.

LuxAI is a spin-off company that has come out of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) of the University of Luxembourg and offers an innovative approach to therapy for children with autism: QTrobot, a little, visually appealing, talking robot. The 60cm humanoid robot is designed to aid autism professionals in helping children with autism to learn new social, emotional and communication skills.

The robot tells stories, plays games and makes dialogue, through which it teaches necessary skills to children with special educational needs. For instance, using its expressive face and body movement, QT teaches children what emotions are and how to deal with them. There is also a version of the QT robot for researchers.

Born out of interdisciplinarity

Rewind to 2011 – Pouyan Ziafati starts his AFR PhD jointly at the University of Luxembourg and University of Utrecht. The title of the PhD project was ‘Programming Cognitive Robotics’, suggesting that LuxAI CEO Dr Pouyan Ziafati, who completed his PhD in 2015, knew in which direction he wanted his research to go since day one.

Fittingly for Luxembourg, where an interdisciplinary approach to science is a matter of course, it was partly thanks to the different backgrounds of Dr Pouyan Ziafati – a computer scientist specialised in AI – and his wife Dr Aida Nazarikhorram – a medical doctor – that the idea of creating the robot QT came to be.

“Being a couple with two different backgrounds, one in AI and robotics and one in medicine, it was always interesting for us to learn more about each other’s domains. The discussions opened the door to find out that there are many areas in healthcare in which using AI and Robotics can be a game changer.” Aida says.

“At first, it was just an interesting topic of discussion, but gradually it became clear that developing an interdisciplinary venture would be very appealing for both of us. After doing early market research for a variety of health-related AI applications, we came up with the idea of a robot so easy to use that it can be used by every healthcare professional, starting from the domain of autism, which was the one most in need for an urgent solution.” Pouyan adds.

Developing with the user

In 2015, the SnT team around QTrobot successfully applied for a grant from the National Research Fund’s Proof of Concept programme (now called JUMP) and by the end of that year, the prototype of QTrobot was ready.

Pouyan and Aida explain that a rule they had set from the beginning was to ‘develop with the user’. Thus, the prototype was immediately put in use in pilot project in autism centers, as well as autism research projects in Luxembourg.

Researchers at the University who used the robot with children, such as Dr Andreia Pinto Costa, observed that children with autism look at the robot longer than they look at a person, suggesting the children are more comfortable with the interaction with the robot than with a person. The researchers explain that children with autism often suffer because they do not get specialised interventions – a missing element the robot can fill. The robot is not intended to replace therapy, but to improve and customise it.

Fewer disruptive behaviours, better concentration

Educators at a therapy centre for children with autism in France, who worked with the prototype, have seen a direct impact on the children’s learning abilities, which also indirectly leads to better relationships with their parents. The children show fewer disruptive behaviours, and are able to maintain concentration for much longer periods – they need fewer breaks and find it easier to focus.

The educators also realised they could extend the use of the robot to educate children with any disability. They easily managed to integrate QTrobot into their daily routines, such as speech, behavioural and occupational therapies – the traditional treatments they use on a daily basis can simply be adapted to QTrobot. Key is also the intuitive programming of the robots, one of the educators explains that once you know the basics, it more or less programmes itself.

Dr Pouyan Ziafati and Dr Aida Nazarikhorram (copyright: LuxAI S.A.)

LuxAI: A fast rise, much more to come

After some time working with the QTrobot prototype, researchers and educators, Pouyan Ziafati and Aida Nazarikhorram launched their company LuxAI S.A. in May 2016 – and immediately got attention: within months of launching their company, they won awards such as the first prize at Mind&Market, the best healthcare facility award. Then came more than 10 international prestigious awards, including the top 10 best ideas from Europe by EU commission, one of the Best social innovations by European investment bank and winning the award of the Tech for a better world from CES 2019. Pouyan Ziafati also won an FNR Award for Outstanding Research-Driven Innovation in 2017.

“The most important achievement is that now we are shipping our robots globally, from US to China, and every day QTrobot is working hand in hand with autism therapists and human robot interaction researchers to create a better world,” Pouyan and Aida explain.

Pouyan explains that LuxAI imagines QTrobot as the first in a row of products: “For us, QTrobot is an introduction to the market. There is great potential in using AI in healthcare that allows us to see a variety of products, both hardware and software that can be added to our portfolio.”

QTrobot now available to have at home

After several years of experience in offering QTrobot to schools and research institutes, LuxAI now aims to support parents by offering their robot to families: in April 2021, LuxAI announced QTrobot for Home enables children to receive a learning experience that, quite literally, speaks directly to them – at home.

“We are launching the parent version of QTrobot after a highly successful pilot with our beta testers. We are delighted to see we can help parents to continue their children’s education during the Covid-19 closure of schools.

LuxAI has developed a full ecosystem to assist parents in actively participating in their child’s education with QTrobot and to further conduct supporting activities to encourage the application of the skills learnt from the robot to new environments.

Following our successful work in research and education, we have gone to great lengths to minimize costs and make this advanced robot as affordable as possible.

Pouyan has benefitted from the FNR’s funding programmes since he began his research career in Luxembourg. His PhD was funded by the FNR’s AFR programme

“The AFR project is a great scheme, allowing innovative young researchers to develop their own research project and allowing universities to attract new researchers who are not necessarily the best fit for the existing projects, but can initiate new possibilities and new spectrum.”

Soon after the completion of his PhD, it was a grant from the FNR’s Proof of Concept (JUMP) programme that enabled the creation of the QTrobot softwre prototype. The JUMP programme helps scientists bridge the technical and funding gap between research-driven discoveries and their commercialisation, thereby enhancing the impact of Luxembourg’s research on economy and society.

“Proof of Concept [JUMP] is an incredibly valuable programme, targeting the most important barrier in transforming academic results to commercially viable solutions. It enables access to the hard to obtain financing for early stage research-driven innovations to advance them in stages suitable for funding from customers and private investors. It also provides a great support in terms of transforming as a researcher to an entrepreneur with a commercial and business mindset,” Pouyan explains, adding:

Sources: Luxembourg National Research Fund

More information:

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Stimulating collaborative R&D projects through public-private partnerships in Luxembourg

To facilitate the emergence of projects and support the process of preparing joint projects, a new dedicated digital platform has been set up. It is being tested with this first pilot joint call in the field of health technologies.

A new dedicated digital platform,, has been set up by Luxinnovation, and the three stakeholders have signed a Memorandum of Understanding in order to formalise their collaboration. The objective of the call for projects is to stimulate collaborative R&D projects through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

This is the first time in Luxembourg that such a joint call for projects is launched within the research, development and innovation ecosystem. Common objectives have been defined by the National Research Fund (FNR) and the Ministry of the Economy to meet the sector’s development needs, while Luxinnovation plays a facilitating role by providing a digital platform to encourage networking.

A coordinated process

The objective is to facilitate the emergence of collaborative research projects aimed at demonstrating the performance and safety of digital health tools. The development of such new products and services for the benefit of patients requires the combined skills of public research, hospitals and companies. Collaborative projects will be evaluated in a coordinated process. Funding decisions will also be taken jointly by the partners.

“The development of digital tools in health technologies is of crucial importance for the Luxembourg economy. It is part of the implementation of our strategy for data-driven innovation that contributes to the evolution of personalised medicine in Luxembourg.

Franz Fayot, Minister of the Economy

“We want to bring together public research institutions, companies and health sector actors around research and innovation projects designed to accelerate the digital transformation in the health sector” 

Marc Schiltz, Secretary General of the FNR

Maximum transparency

To facilitate the emergence of projects and support the process of preparing joint projects, Luxinnovation, the national innovation agency, has initiated the setting up of the platform. Companies, public research organisations, hospitals and healthcare providers are invited to submit project ideas. Luxinnovation’s role will be to follow up on the ideas, in particular by bringing together public and private partners interested in participating.

The call for projects is planned in two stages, with feedback provided to the consortia at the end of the first stage. Only projects relevant to the objectives of the call will be invited to prepare a full application. Finally, the approved consortia can use the platform for preparing the technical documentation required to submit individual applications to the Ministry of the Economy and the FNR.

“Thanks to this platform, we will help researchers and clinicians gain better knowledge of all the innovations in digital health developed by private companies. It will also provide them with new financial opportunities for getting involved in personalised medicine with a real economic impact for the country.

Sasha Baillie, CEO of Luxinnovation

The platform is being tested with this first pilot joint call in the field of health technologies. It is already open for the “ideation” stage (the creative process of generating, developing and communicating new ideas). It will then open up for the proposal submission period, which will last from 4 May to 30 June. For projects whose ideation component has been validated by the Ministry of the Economy and the FNR, a more complete proposal must be submitted by 15 October, which will then be examined by a panel of external experts. The results will be communicated in January 2022 and projects can start in February 2022.

A webinar presenting the functionalities of the platform will be organised by Luxinnovation on 4 May.

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5 new strategic research and innovation projects made in Luxembourg

The INITIATE programme supports the initiation and development of strategic research and innovation project ideas that will help make Luxembourg internationally competitive in priority domains. Five INITIATE projects have been granted so far.

Through INITIATE, the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) wishes to back and guide the early-stage development of high-risk/high-reward strategic project ideas, up to the point where a solid project proposal is formulated that can potentially be submitted to other strategic programmes, a dedicated one-time call, or a bespoke “package” of funding  instruments.

Five projects have been granted so far: round-up.

NATIONTWIN (Responsible AI for a NATION-wide and privacy preserving Digital TWIN)

The objective of this proposed project is to investigate the feasibility at the Luxembourg scale of a future strategic programme associated with the research and the implementation of a testbed and a living lab related to  a “Nation-wide and privacy preservation digital twin” enabled by “responsible AI”.

Main coordinating institution:  Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST)

Education 21

Education plays a central role in our lives. It shapes our future and lays the foundations of cultural and technical innovations. Education also makes us resilient to crises and allows us to thrive in an uncertain, rapidly changing world. It is now urgent to update Education for the 21st century, to empower people in lifelong learning and offer equality of educational opportunities in a multilingual and diverse society.

To meet this national research priority, the project will unite specialists from Education, Psychology, Sociology and Computer Science and design an innovative, interdisciplinary research initiative that aims to establish Luxembourg as a frontrunner in 21st Century Educational Research.

Digital technologies and large-scale data hold the potential to dramatically improve Education; but they also comprise serious risks of dehumanization and data privacy breaches. The goal is to develop and scientifically validate human-centric, digitally enhanced learning solutions. Putting people at the centre of the efforts, these solutions will be directly usable by the learners and advance the understanding on how humans of all ages and backgrounds learn best. More specifically, the project will develop four flagship projects that revolve around personalized education: a digital learning assistant, a digital teacher assistant, a lifelong learner pass and a skills market dashboard.

Main coordinating institution: University of Luxembourg

Henriette and André Losch Centre for Childhood Disorders

The aim of the proposed “Henriette and André Losch Centre for Childhood Disorders” (hereinafter “Losch Centre”) is to carry out fundamental, translational and clinical research to understand the underlying mechanisms of childhood diseases and to develop new methods for their prevention, diagnosis and treatment. The Losch Centre’s research will focus on rare childhood disorders of the brain, metabolism and the immune system and the interaction thereof.

Main coordinating institutions: Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB/University of Luxembourg) & National Health Laboratory (LNS)

Automation and personalisation in complex financial systems – a concept for a national Centre of Excellence in Research in Financial Technologies

Investigating the feasibility of creating a national Centre of Excellence in Financial Technologies. Focus, from a business perspective, on automation and personalisation in complex financial systems. Hub of excellence in financial technology research and innovation, education and training, business development and thought leadership, and strengthening of Luxembourg’s position as an international financial centre. The idea of the centre is driven by the government’s objective to establish Luxembourg as the most trusted “data economy” in the European Union by 2023.

Main coordinating institution: Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT/University of Luxembourg)

Clinnova: Unlocking the potential of data science and artificial intelligence in health care

Health data and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are at the heart of an accelerating digital health revolution. It promises direct benefits for people with or without disease and is expected to become a key driver of the digital economy. Hence, digital health is one of the national priorities of the Luxembourgish government. Clinnova aims at putting Luxembourg into the centre of this emerging arena. To develop integrated, AI-driven healthcare solutions Clinnova will create a data-enabling environment by establishing a data integration centre as well as by developing shared approaches for data integration and data interoperability. Initially, the creation of data-driven health solutions will be supported by three defined medical use cases in chronic inflammatory diseases (inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid diseases and multiple sclerosis). Expanding further into additional patient data, the established infrastructure and workflows have the potential to transform the healthcare system towards personalisation, sustainability and prevention and will be an important resource for further public and private partnerships.

Further, Clinnova’s ability to tie in leading clinicians across University hospitals and private clinics in France, Germany and Luxembourg around shared patient stratification approaches is at the core of the effort and will be a blueprint for developing integrated, cross-border digital health solutions.

Main coordinating institution: Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH)

More information on the INITIATE programme on the FNR’s website

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Babies and their gut microbiome tell a story

Thanks to a long-standing study – called COSMIC – a Research Luxembourg team highlight lasting birth mode-dependent differences and their association with immune function.

In a recent scientific publication, researchers from the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and the Department of Life Sciences and Medicine at the University of Luxembourg address the knowledge gaps concerning the lasting effect of birth mode on infants. Thanks to a long-standing study – called COSMIC – they highlight differences in the gut microbiome composition and function that persist throughout the first year of life. These birth mode-dependent alterations are likely to affect the status of the immune system and antimicrobial resistance in the long run. The results of the team led by Prof. Paul Wilmes are published in the open-access journal ISME Communications.

©Linda Wampach

The rate of caesarean section delivery (CSD) is constantly increasing worldwide, especially in Europe where it represents 25% of births. Although several studies, including previous ones by the same team of researchers, have shown that CSD affects both the gut microbiome and the development of the immune system in new-borns, the lasting impacts of birth mode are not well understood.

“Current hypotheses are that caesarean section is linked to different chronic diseases later in life, including metabolic disorders and allergies, or may facilitate the development of antimicrobial resistance,” details Prof. Paul Wilmes, head of the Systems Ecology group at the LCSB.

However, studies over longer periods of time are needed to determine the continuous effect during the first year of life which represents a critical window of development.

The Systems Ecology group has been investigating the impact of vaginal delivery (VD) and caesarean section on babies for several years together with Prof. Carine de Beaufort from the Pediatric Clinic at the Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg (CHL). They have previously identified differences in the structure and function of the babies’ microbiomes. Building on this long-standing interest, they assessed the pervasive effect of birth mode through an in-depth longitudinal analysis ranging from immediately after birth until early childhood.

“We followed VD and CSD new-borns, collected faecal samples at crucial intervals – from 5 days to one year – and performed high-resolution metagenomic analyses of the gut microbiomes of these infants,” explains Dr Susheel Bhanu Busi, co-first author of the study. “We also used PathoFact, a new bioinformatics tool developed in-house, to identify genes that encode virulence factors or antibiotic resistance.”

The results highlight lasting birth mode-dependent differences and their association with immune function.

©Linda Wampach

While the long-term study shows that gut microbiomes of CSD and VD babies become more similar over time, it also points out differences – in terms of composition and function – in one year old infants delivered vaginally.

For example, a bacterium, called Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, is more abundant in the VD group. It is usually associated with healthy human microbiomes and could confer anti-inflammatory properties. A functional analysis of the microbiomes also indicates an increase in the biosynthesis of natural antibiotics for the same group.

“Both results suggest that colonising microorganisms in the gut play a crucial role and that VD children could benefit from early resistance mechanisms against opportunistic pathogens,” co-first author Laura de Nies underlines.

Combining new results with their previous studies on the topic, the LCSB researchers also confirmed that a reduction in early immune system priming in new-borns delivered by caesarean section might lead to persistent effects throughout the first year of life. These may in turn explain the higher rates of immune system-linked diseases observed in CSD infants later in life, including metabolic disorders and allergies.

Next, the team of Prof. Wilmes investigated how birth mode modulates antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and found that caesarean section is associated with genes conferring resistance against synthetic and semi-synthetic antibiotics as early as five days after birth.

He explains: “As mothers undergoing the surgical procedure are administered antibiotics, it is plausible that this enrichment in AMR genes is linked to the hospital environment and the caesarean section.”

Prof. Paul Wilmes

The study also provided some insights into the role of mobile genetic elements – such as plasmids and bacteriophages – in conferring antimicrobial resistance, showing that they are key contributors to the establishment and persistence of AMR throughout the first year of life, irrespective of birth mode.

Collectively, these findings suggest that birth mode-dependent effects still remain after a year. The early impact of caesarean section delivery on the establishment of the gut microbiome of new-borns leads to persistent structural and functional differences. They affect the immune system, defence mechanisms against pathogens and antimicrobial resistance.

“This study highlights the importance of following these effects over extended periods of time and paves the way for future interventions aimed at restoring key functional features of the microbiome in CSD infants,” concludes Dr Busi.

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Luxembourg funded by the EU to address the issue of urban health

Prof. Martin Dijst of LISER (Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research) will coordinate a Marie Curie ITN (Innovative Training Networks) project that fosters new skills

Through its Horizon 2020 programme, the EU has funded the “Systems approach of URban enviRonmEnts and heALth (SURREAL)” project, led by Prof. Martin Dijst, Director of the Urban Development & Mobility Department at  LISER.

With this project “Systems approach of URban enviRonmEnts and heALth (SURREAL)”, an ITN Innovative Training Network of the H2020 funding programme will for the very first time be coordinated from Luxembourg and will be deployed across the entire network including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Israel and Estonia.

The aim of the ITN (Innovative Training Networks) is to increase the scientific excellence and innovative character of doctoral research and training in Europe (EU Member States and countries associated to Horizon 2020), by extending the traditional framework of training to university research in a pioneering and original way. ITNs are resolutely interdisciplinary projects that can respond to major economic and social challenges

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Why unravel the complexity of urban health?

Worldwide, people’s health status has increasingly been put under pressure by demographic growth, primary energy uses, mobility, and urbanization. Every year, more than 1.2 million people on average die prematurely in EU countries. However, there are large disparities in life expectancy in terms of socio-economic status, gender, age, and ethnicity. On the one hand, cities are especially prone to creating the conditions for health problems, such as sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets, air and other pollutions, and stress. On the other hand, cities also offer opportunities for structural and long-lasting healthy transformations in lifestyles and health status. However, the big question is to figure out how to achieve these transformations in a situation where the complexity of urban health problems is increasing, involving many actors. Although not directly focused on COVID-19, this project studies heavily underlying health issues of this pandemic such as unhealthy food consumption, lack of physical activity, air pollution and stress.

The aim of the project is to deliver a unique, creative and single training network for 15 early-stage researchers to co-create an understanding of the urban health system’s complexity, and co-design and apply adequate interventions in the system. The project will draw upon interactions between academic disciplines such as epidemiology, public health, and geography, and a wide range of entities such as medical centres, public authorities, and NGOs as well as citizens. Equipped with this expertise and supported by innovative training formats, such as Collaborative Learning in Practice, SURREAL trains the next generation of professionals in urban health.

To carry out this project, LISER, as coordinator, has joined forces with:
  • L’Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale INSERM (France)
  • University Medical Center Utrecht (Netherlands)
  • Hasselt University (Belgium)
  • Erasmus Medical Center (Netherlands)
  • University of Luxembourg (Luxembourg)
  • Tel Aviv University (Israel)
  • Barcelona Institute for Global Health ISGLOBAL (Spain)
  • Wageningen University & Research (Netherlands)
  • University of Tartu (Estonia)

This article was originally published on LISER’s website. To learn more about the SURREAL project:
Interview with Prof. Martin Dijst