What is the VIB Grand Challenges Program?
VIB’s Grand Challenges Program has been set up, supported by a crucial investment from the Flemish Government, to increase the societal impact of VIB by addressing scientific challenges with a substantial significance.
Through the Program’s funding, the selected projects will be able to initiate collaborative efforts with transdisciplinary external experts.
The objective of the VIB Grand Challenges Program is to significantly increase the societal impact of VIB, hence taking its scientific leadership to the next level of global visibility, while keeping to its formula of success of a bottom-up, excellence driven institute.
This program aims to structurally support translational and/or disruptive research programs around a specific ‘grand challenge’, with concrete objectives as proposed by VIB PIs, with as mandatory features:
- Trans-disciplinary by definition
- Impact in science and society on a global scale
- Beyond VIB borders by default
- Multi-PI collaboration by necessity
Together, the project teams will build the foundations that will enable them to quickly implement their discoveries for the benefit of patients, customers, and society at large. In the initial phase the researchers will also develop plans to ensure that the projects will translate into long-term implementation strategies with continued involvement of various stakeholders from the start.
Based on three of the UN’s Global Sustainable Development Goals (Health & wellbeing, Zero hunger, and Climate action), the Grand Challenges Program seeks projects that align with the following five thematic domains:
Targeted treatment strategies
Starting from the patient or crop
The VIB Grand Challenges projects are by default induced by ‘reverse’ translational (applied research, not basic research) questions and issues that are triggered in daily practice and work backwards starting from the patient or crop. The Grand Challenges projects involve an iterative process in which new observations are translated into new testable hypotheses and validated solutions making use of VIB expertise and toolbox substantially impact bigger challenges in healthcare and agriculture.
As such VIB-Grand Challenges Program projects combine:
- VIB’s expertise and knowhow in the field, the VIB toolbox;
- The expertise, knowhow and materials of the non-VIB groups with whom the translational collaboration is set up.
What makes a VIB Grand Challenges project?
While each Grand Challenges project uses a specific scientific approach, all projects share important characteristics: collaboration (both within VIB and with external partners), strong translational and clinical components aimed at significant societal impact, and management by several principal investigators.
Projects & results
So far, there have been three calls and one Covid call for project applications. In each of these calls, three projects have been selected. The applications were evaluated in a 2-step-procedure with involvement of both external scientific experts in the respective thematic domains and experts assessing societal impact potential, and a panel review.
Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Professor of Global Health and one of the most recent members of VIB’s Institutional Board, lauds the program:
“The Grand Challenges Program is an excellent initiative to increase the direct social
impact of world-class science, inspired by the UN’s Sustainable Development goals.”
In 2019 these projects got selected
Recently, two projects have been selected after thorough review within the third call:
1. Soy in Flanders
This project aims to introduce soy as an alternative crop for sustainable agriculture in Flanders. To date, soy is mainly being imported from deforested areas in South American countries. This project will engage with 1000 citizens that will grow soy in their own garden. The soy plants will “capture” microorganisms that are necessary for nitrogen fixation and growth. By integrating data regarding soil type, microorganisms and soy variety, tailored guideline can be offered to farmers to guarantee cultivation of soy with acceptable yield.
2. Inhalable biologics to control respiratory infections (IBCORI)
The main objective of this project is to develop small biological molecules that can be nebulized and introduced in the lungs to treat influenza. Every year, a new vaccine needs to be developed against influenza. Unfortunately, this is not very effective in the elderly population who have a hampered immune system and in whom the mortality rates are still high. A small biologic could offer value here, because it will work independent of the function of the immune system. Nebulization will result in local application and will also reduce the cost of treatment. Consequently, the effect of the cost-benefit will also be investigated in the project.
VIB-Grand Challenges Program has contributed to the global response to the COVID-19 outbreak and has upon approval by the Flemish Minister Hilde Crevits relocated co-founding for several COVID-19 trials with the final aim to better understand COVID19 infection, as well as to improve efficient patient treatment and management, preparedness and response to the current and analogous outbreaks that may come in the future.
This cofunding fits within the thematic area epidemic control, namely the translation of new molecular insights on health and prevention policies, more specifically:
(Epidemiological) Observational studies including risk factor determination, detailed investigation of transmission events and infectiousness (included susceptibility of infection)
National clinical trials to test novel antiviral treatments
The following trials were supported:
An in-depth characterization of the dynamic host immune response to Covid-19
Sargramostim treatment of patients with acute hypoxic respiratory failure due to Covid-19
Treatment of Covid-19 patients with anti-interleukin drugs