Staff Laboratory for Gene Therapy


Laboratory of Gene Therapy
Heidestraat 19
9820 Merelbeke

Fax - 09 264 78 49


Head of the lab

Niek Sanders received his MS degree in pharmaceutical sciences in 1997 and his PhD degree in 2001. During his PhD he studied the barrier properties of cystic fibrosis (CF) lung mucus towards CF gene therapy. His PhD work was awarded with the Leonardo Award (Pharmacia-Pfizer) and the national price of the Belgian Society of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Since 2002 he worked as a postdoctoral fellow, of the National Fund for Scientific Research (FWO), at Ghent University (Belgium), at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (Munich, Germany), and at the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands). The main focus of his postdoctoral research was the development and in vitro evaluation of new delivery systems for DNA and siRNA. In 2008 he became research professor in Gene Therapy at Ghent University and established a new research group that focuses on cancer immunotherapy, DNA and mRNA vaccination.


Selected publications

  1. Sofie Denies and Niek N. Sanders. Recent progress in canine tumor vaccination: potential applications for human tumor vaccines. Expert Rev. Vaccines 2012; 11(11): 1375-1386
  2. Oliwia Andries, Marina De Filette, Stefaan C. De Smedt, Jo Demeester, Mario Van Poucke, Luc Peelman and Niek N. Sanders. Innate immune response and programmed cell death following carrier-mediated delivery of unmodified mRNA to respiratory cells. J. Control. Release. 2013; 167(2): 157-166
  3. Laetitia Cicchelero, Hilde de Rooster and Niek N. Sanders. Various ways to improve whole cancer cell vaccines. Expert Rev. Vaccines 2014; 13(6):721-35
  4. Sofie Denies, Laetitia Cicchelero, Isabel Van Audenhove and Niek N. Sanders. Combination of interleukin-12 gene therapy, metronomic cyclophosphamide and DNA cancer vaccination directs all arms of the immune system towards tumor eradication. J. Control. Release. 2014; 187: 175-182
  5. Oliwia Andries, Tasuku Kitada, Niek N. Sanders* and Ron Weiss* (*co-last authors). Synthetic biology devices and circuits for RNA-based 'smart vaccines': a propositional review. Expert Rev. Vaccines 2015; 7: 1-19
  6. Laetitia Cicchelero, Sofie Denies, Bert Devriendt, Hilde de Rooster and Niek N. Sanders. Can dendritic cells improve whole cancer cell vaccines based on immunogenically killed cancer cells? OncoImmunology 2015; DOI:10.1080/2162402X.2015.1048413


Scientific Staff and Current Research

Laetitia Cicchelero is a veterinarian and started her PhD in 2012. The detection and selection of immunogenic compononents in tumors and the (pre)clinical evaluation of tumor cell vaccines and immunostimulatory cytokines in (companion) animals are the two main themes of her research. The end goal of her PhD is to contribute to a holistic approach of cancer therapy.


Séan Mc Cafferty graduated at Ghent University as a Master of Science in Biochemistry and Biotechnology and joined the lab in 2014. His research focuses on non-viral delivery and application of mRNA for cancer immunotherapy and genetic vaccination. In addition to gathering immunological data, the delivery of mRNA therapeutics and ensuing protein expression kinetics are evaluated by in vivo bioluminescence and in vivo fluorescence imaging. In the end, Sean Mc Cafferty hopes to contribute to bringing gene therapy from bench to bedside.


Dr. Bregje Leyman

Bregje Leyman studied biology at Ghent University. In October 2008 she started her PhD research at the faculty of veterinary medicine of Ghent University at the department of bacteriology, pathology and avian diseases. On July 4th 2012 she defended her PhD thesis entitled ‘Optimizing vaccination of pigs against Salmonella Typhimurium’.

Until March 2015 she worked as a practical assistant at the faculty of sciences, Ghent university at the departments of biochemistry and microbiology, plant biotechnology and bioinformatics, and biomedical molecular biology.

On April 1st 2015, she started working as a post-doctoral researcher at the faculty of veterinary medicine, laboratory of gene therapy, Ghent University. The main topic of her research includes the use of new innovative strategies to switch the skin’s immune system to a gut-directed immune responses, to induce a protective mucosal immunity against enteropathogens in pigs. These strategies include the use of biodegradable polymer particles that are loaded with all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), which has been shown to play a key role in the imprinting of gut-homing receptors on lymphocytes, the latter being required for homing to the small intestine.

First author publications

    1. Bregje Leyman, Filip Boyen, Alexander Van Parys, Elin Verbrugghe, Freddy Haesebrouck, Frank Pasmans. Salmonella Typhimurium LPS mutations for use in vaccines allowing differentiation of infected and vaccinated pigs. Vaccine, Apr 3 2011, 29: 3679-3685.
    2. Bregje Leyman, Filip Boyen, Alexander Van Parys, Elin Verbrugghe, Freddy Haesebrouck, Frank Pasmans. Vaccination of pigs reduces Salmonella Typhimurium numbers in conditions mimicking pre-slaughter stress. Veterinary Journal, May 19 2012, 194(2): 250-2.
    3. Bregje Leyman, Filip Boyen, Alexander Van Parys, Elin Verbrugghe, Freddy Haesebrouck, Frank Pasmans. Tackling the issue of environmental survival of live Salmonella Typhimurium vaccines in pigs: deletion of the lon gene. Research in Veterinary Science, Jun 9 2012, 93(3): 1168-72.


    Francis Combes is a veterinarian and started his PhD in 2015. His research focuses on the use of cellular vehicles for the delivery of therapeutic agents. These carriers are used as Trojan horses to deposit nucleic acid constructs that code for cytokines in the vicinity of a tumor. Additionally, the constructs possess regulatory elements which allow the expression of the cytokines to be manipulated after injection. In brief, this model aims to provide researchers and clinicians a tool to specifically target malignant regions of interest without the need for high systemic concentrations and its associated adverse effects.


    Hanne Huysmans graduated as a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences at Ghent University. In October 2015 she started her PhD research at the laboratory of Gene Therapy, in which she will attempt to redirect the skin’s homing process towards a gut-homing process, using all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) as an immunity inducer. ATRA causes active lymphocytes to migrate to the mucosa of the gut and is important in the protection of the host against enteropathogens such as Enterotoxigenic Escherichia Coli (ETEC).


    Former members

    • Dr. Marina De Filette
      Marina De Filette currently works at EcoTreasures
    • Steven Cool
      Steven Cool currently works at Roche Diagnostics.
    • Dr. Oliwia Andries
      Oliwia Andries currently works at Omega-Pharma
    • Sofie Denies
      Sofie Denies currently works at iTeos Therapeutics