Vice-rector for Research Karin Vanderkerken: “For excellent scientific research you need excellent equipment.”
The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is investing €4.7 million in new research equipment. Ensuring an optimal research environment is one of the most important aims of VUB’s research policy. This provides researchers with state-of-the-art research infrastructure. The funds come from the FWO, which has made €2.5 million available for medium-sized equipment, and the VUB Research Council itself, which is investing €2.2 million. Eight new devices are being bought with this funding.
Excellent research infrastructure is essential at VUB. Vice-rector for Research Karin Vanderkerken: “Excellent scientific research and ground-breaking discoveries can only happen where researchers have access to the latest technologies, equipment and expertise. An efficient research policy meets the need of researchers to have access to state-of-the art technology and expertise at an affordable cost. This also fits in with the Open Science policy, with which we tackle many challenges as a university.”
An overview of the new devices
Versatile mass spectrometry platform for in-depth molecular and pharmacokinetic characterisation of small molecules, peptide and proteinogenic lead compounds
Supervisor: Prof Steven Ballet
Mass spectrometry (MS) is used for the characterisation of chemical compounds based on their mass. Within the Organic Chemistry Research Group, the technique is used to confirm the identity, purity and molecular fingerprint of peptides and (tagged) proteins. These peptides are created to, for example, bind to specific receptors to have an effect on conditions such as chronic pain. The new MS platform is the only one of its kind in Belgium and will allow the analysis of molecules ranging from small compounds to proteins present in biological and blood samples. Thanks to the platform, the peptides created in the research group can be characterised in greater detail, allowing them to be used more accurately.
CASA PETIt: CAmera for Small Animal PET-Imaging’
Supervisor: Prof Nick Devoogdt
PET is the preferred method for non-invasive imaging in patients. It uses radioactive tracers that target diseased cells and is used for the diagnosis and monitoring of patients with cancer or cardiovascular, metabolic and inflammatory diseases. The new PET camera system allows the non-invasive evaluation of biological and pathological processes in mice and rats, using existing and new tracers developed at VUB. This equipment, consisting of a PET component for imaging the tracer signal and a CT component for accurate anatomical localisation, will be implemented in the new In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Core Facility and will be indispensable for the development of new PET tracers that can then be applied in the clinic for improved diagnostics.
A platform for next generation comprehensive proteome analysis: liquid chromatography trapped-ion-mobility time-of-flight (LC-timsTOF) mass spectrometry
Supervisor: Prof Sebastiaan Eeltink
Proteomics or proteome analysis is the comprehensive characterisation of the proteins of a biological system. The gold standard technique is proteomics based on liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LC-MS), where protein mixtures are first cleaved and the resulting peptides are then characterised based on mass spectrometry. This new device will realise a proteomics platform at VUB, which will be optimised to achieve unprecedented resolution and ultra-high detection sensitivity. The device will be used for the accurate characterisation of biomarkers – molecules that indicate the presence of a disease or disorder and can provide clues for new therapeutic strategies. For example, diagnostic biomarkers for certain types of cancer or parasitic infections will be investigated, potentially leading to earlier diagnoses and the development of new therapies.
Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry: optimising for different research domains.
Promotor: Prof Steven Goderis
Mass spectrometry (MS) is used for the characterisation of chemical and biological mixtures. The basis of the technique is the transformation of the molecules of a sample into ions that can be characterised based on their mass. The new ICP-MS (inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry) will be connected to two additional systems that are also being bought thanks to this funding, allowing more detailed analysis to be made of samples even when the amount of available material is very limited. This is crucial for research into the composition of samples such as rare fossils or meteorites, where the integrity must be guaranteed as much as possible. With this new device, an extremely versatile, efficient and contemporary platform will be set up and optimised, which targets a wide range of materials, from minute mineral phases in meteorites, microfossils, shells and bones, to plant material and aerosols. This will result in highly innovative scientific research in various areas. The device will be part of the new Materials Characterisation Core Facility.
Intravital imaging as a tool to bridge the gap between macroscopic in vivo imaging and microscopic analysis of tissues
Supervisor Prof Sophie Hernot
Intravital microscopy is a powerful imaging technique that allows the investigation of dynamic processes in living animals. This closes the gap between imaging at the macroscopic level and microscopic analysis, which means important biological processes and new therapeutic strategies can be more thoroughly investigated in their natural environment, taking into account the complexity of living beings. For example, an important line of research by the researchers is to develop nanobody tracers that will be used for the accurate diagnosis of tumours, which may lead to more targeted therapy. Intravital microscopy will contribute to more detailed knowledge about the optimal characteristics of these nanobody tracers. Intravital microscopy has thus become an indispensable technology to answer important fundamental and applied research questions of VUB researchers. The new intravital microscope will be part of the recently established In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Core Facility.
SPECY-SORT: SPEctral flowCYtometer and cellSORTer
Supervisor: Prof Damya Laoui
Through flow cytometry, multiple parameters of individual living cells can be analysed to gain insight into which proteins are expressed by the cells and in what amount. It allows researchers to identify which cell types are present in a sample of, for example, a tumour cell, and what their properties are. The function of the cells is characterised, allowing a targeted therapeutic strategy to be designed. Compared to conventional flow cytometers, this new spectral flow cytometer offers better possibilities to distinguish the specific parameters of cells from background signals and improved sensitivity for measuring weak markers. It allows subpopulations of cells to be examined in even greater detail, so more targeted therapeutic interventions can eventually be developed. This new spectral cell sorter will enhance the new Flowcore Core Facility.
High-parametric single-cell protein profiling in intact tissues
Promotor Prof Kiavesh Movahedi
Single-cell sequencing makes it possible to measure RNA and protein expression in thousands of individual cells. This technology has emerged as a ground-breaking innovation that is revolutionising biomedical research. Our new state-of-the-art device also allows us to retain spatial information about cells, an important next step towards mapping cell populations in intact tissues. This will allow new insights into tissue architecture and interactions between cells. Among other things, this device will be used to further investigate macrophages in the brain and their role in glioblastoma, a particular type of brain tumour. The accurate characterisation of populations of macrophages and their functions in the tissue is crucial to gaining more knowledge about these cells, with the ultimate goal of developing a new therapeutic approach targeting them.
Thermal activity monitoring microcalorimetry: from fundamental thermodynamic principles towards a wide array of practical applications
Supervisor Prof Nico Van den Brande
Thermal activity monitoring microcalorimetry is the most sensitive calorimetric measurement technique, and is able to measure heat effects over a scale of days to months. As a result, it is uniquely suited to studying processes that slow down sharply around a certain temperature, such as the hardening of non-traditional cements or the direct measurement of metabolic processes. Because this technique is relatively unknown in the field of materials research, there is great potential and interest in applying it among academic and industrial partners, who work in fields where the direct measurement of thermodynamic quantities is very important but has often not yet been attempted. For example, the microcalorimeter will be used for research on self-healing materials, where the healing process can be monitored in detail over several days. This device will undoubtedly lead to important insights in the field of materials research. The microcalorimeter will be part of the new Materials Characterization Core Facility.