Vaccination against infectious diseases has changed the course of human history. Every year, vaccines save the lives of millions of adults and children. Vaccination may have been the best investment in health in the past. And it needs to continue being one in the future. This can only be achieved by making vaccinations a permanent priority in research, industry, public health, and society at large.

This VIB Facts Series dossier aims to help with this. Not only by highlighting the achievements of vaccinations, but also by clearly showing the challenges that lie ahead.

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Cancer is not one, but more than a hundred different diseases. Despite this, all these diseases have much in common: it always involves the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that ignore the signals and mechanisms that normally inhibit their growth. In most cases these cells penetrate adjacent tissues and spread to other organs.

In this dossier we summarise ten of the changes that occur in cancer cells. They are the ‘hallmarks of cancer’ - the core of what we know today about the biology of cancer. However, there is still much
that we do not know. That is why fundamental cancer research remains so important.

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Worldwide, 35 million people suffer from Alzheimer's disease. It is the most common cause of dementia. People with Alzheimer's disease become disoriented in time and space, the gaps in their memory become more obvious, they have difficulties with routine tasks,...

This background file provides an overview of the latest scientific insights into Alzheimer's disease. This is because over the past 20 years alone some 80,000 articles have been published about this disease. But even 80,000 Alzheimer’s articles are impossible to summarize in one document. Moreover, the research is gathering momentum. For example, we have learned more about Alzheimer's disease in the last two decades alone than in the 100 years before.

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Laboratory animals

Despite technological and scientific progress and the protests of animal rights activists, research institutions and companies ​continue to use animals in scientific research. Why is this?

The short answer to this question is that we simply cannot answer certain research questions without using animals. Furthermore, it is unethical to use humans for the type of research we undertake on animals. And while animal research has its own ethical implications, it is necessary and unavoidable for many types of research.​ That does not mean that the decision to do animal experiments is taken lightly. Scientists must treat animals in a careful, caring way. They must also be able to fully justify every animal experiment.​ 

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CRISPR in medicine

Genome editing is an umbrella term encompassing a series of revolutionary technologies for making changes to the genetic material of living things quickly and precisely. It is possible to do this - in principle - in the DNA of plants, microbes, animals and humans. Using these technologies, scientists can very specifically change a single DNA letter, replace a series of DNA letters with another series or switch a well-defined gene on or off.

Genome editing has been propelling research in the life sciences for several years now. This is mainly due to one very successful form of the technology: CRISPR-Cas, which lets scientists make very precise changes to DNA without having to incorporate 'foreign' genes in the process. 

In this dossier, the latest uses of CRISPR in medicine are highlighted and the potential of the technique in gene therapy for various human diseases is discussed.


CRISPR-Cas: Genome editing in plants

Genome editing is a revolutionary technology for making rapid and precise changes in the genetic material of living organisms. This can be done in the DNA of plants, microbes, animals and humans. Using this technology, scientists can change a specific DNA letter, replace a piece of DNA or switch a selected gene on or off. Over the last years, genome editing has transformed life sciences research. This is mainly due to one very successful form of the technology: CRISPR-Cas. According to the journal Science, CRISPR-Cas was the scientific breakthrough of the year in 2015.

This VIB dossier describes current and emerging applications of CRISPR-Cas technology in agriculture. This background file is written in an accessible way, so that anyone with a keen interest, regardless of background, will find it informative.

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Effect of genetically modified crops on the environment

This report forms a two-part series on the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops along with the background report on “Food safety of genetically modified crops”, which has already been published. In this report we discuss what impact GM crops have on the environment.

All agriculture, including cultivating a particular crop, has an impact on the environment. Planting calendars determine which weeds and insects are present in the field, agricultural machinery compresses the earth, uses fuel, and emits CO2, whilst excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides can leave traces in and on the earth. In addition, a particular crop trait (for instance, insect resistance) can also affect the impact on the environment. 

The aim of this report is to provide a nuanced response to the many concerns that exist concerning the environmental impact of GM crops. Plant breeding makes it possible to develop plants that reduce the impact on the environment.

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From plant to crop: The past, present and future of plant breeding

Whenever plant biotechnology pops up in conversation, it is usually as part of a debate on genetically modified (GM) crops. Nevertheless, selective genetic modification of crops with the use of GM technology is only one of the many possibilities we have to make plants respond better to our needs. In this VIB Fact series issue, we outline how the crops we know today have evolved from nature, with particular emphasis on the role humans have played.

Since agriculture began around 10,000 years ago, humans have adapted plants to suit their purposes. We selected plants and crossed them so that they slowly but surely became more adapted to our requirements. And with the rise of new plant breeding technologies, a debate started concerning their need, potential risks and technical aspects of how to create the appropriate legislation. In this VIB Fact series issue, we explain how these techniques work, how they differ from generally accepted methods, and what advantages they have over traditional breeding techniques.

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Food safety of genetically modified crops

In this VIB Fact Series issue, we discuss current scientific understanding regarding the food safety of GM crops. Just as there are scientists who deny global warming or who disregard the effectiveness of vaccines, there will always be people, even from the scientific community, who state that GM technology in itself poses a threat to public health. However no single scientific argument can be found to doubt the safety of GM technology. Food safety institutions, companies, research institutes and universities have conducted large-scale tests and studies on GM crops over the past thirty years. The significant scientific consensus about the safety of GM technology is based on this. However, it must be clear that the applications of GM technology must be evaluated case by case before a crop can be authorized for cultivation and/or food and feed use
by local governments.

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Golden rice

ice is the staple food of more than half of the world’s population. Rice grains are rich in carbohydrates and comprise a good source of energy but lack many essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. For people who barely eat more than a portion of rice a day, those deficiencies can result in serious health problems.

Tackling poverty, the lack of infrastructure and inadequate education are the greatest challenges. In attaining these goals the fortification of staple food crops in developing countries can comprise a sustainable way of adding additional nutrients to people’s diets. The development of Golden Rice is an example of this. This rice contains provitamin A, a substance that the body converts into vitamin A.

This document discusses Golden Rice as a potential component of the broad strategy against vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. Efforts must continue to be made in combating global poverty and promoting a varied diet. But, for as long as vitamin A deficiency remains a public health problem in several countries, Golden Rice can be of added value.

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Potato in Africa

The potato is a widely used and appreciated food in the world. It is used for human consumption, animal feed, and as a source os starch and alcohol. Potato has a short cropping cycle and a large production per unit area. It provides more nutritious food per land unit in less time and often under more adverse conditions than other food crops due to its efficient water use.

New approaches, including inbred line development of self- compatible diploid potatoes, genetic modification (GM) and gene editing technologies, promise to add more options for crop improvement, particularly to support resource-poor farmers and achieve good yield for improving income and food security.

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