New target in sepsis research yields 2 million euros for drug development

(05-07-2021) Organ failure, tissue damage,… sometimes fatal. The consequences of sepsis or blood poisoning noticed too late are very serious. Each year, more than 49 million people experience this violent, aberrant response to infection, 11 million of whom die.

CRIG III.PNGYet little is known so far about the mechanism behind this extreme reaction. With additional funding from the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), the VIB-Ghent University team of Professor Claude Libert is trying to better understand the triggers of this extreme body reaction. The ultimate goal is to develop a drug to stop this life-threatening process, increase a sepsis patient’s chances of survival, or even prevent sepsis from occurring.

JJDW5066 II.jpgProfessor Jan De Waele (Ghent University Hospital): “Sepsis remains one of the leading causes of death in critically ill patients, and despite advances in diagnosis and therapy in recent decades, death rates as a result remain high.”

New insights into sepsis research

Since this pressing medical need manifests itself as an uncontrolled cascade of inflammation, sepsis has been treated primarily with anti-inflammatories in recent decades. The research also focused on this classic belief, but many clinical studies based on this approach failed. As a result, the theory that sepsis is caused by inflammation came under increasing pressure and scientists started looking for other mechanisms behind this extreme body reaction. In their research into the causes of sepsis, professor Claude Libert’s VIB-Ghent University research group has been focusing on the influence of metabolism for several years now.


Prof Lambert III.jpgProfessor Claude Libert (VIB-Ghent University): “We think the pattern is similar to extreme and acute starvation. Under normal circumstances, your body absorbs substances from your diet and converts them into "useful" molecules, which are used as fuel for your heart and brain. In sepsis we notice that these so-called transcription factors, which help with this conversion, are inhibited, which means that your body does not receive enough fuel to keep functioning. One of these transcription factors, HNF4A, has been identified as an important player in the development of sepsis.”


2 million euros project financing

In order to further explore the new insights in this research, Research Foundation Flanders recently awarded an SBO grant of 2 million euros. “This project funding will make it possible to further investigate the cause of the failure of the HNF4A transcription factors and the role they play in the progression of sepsis. We hope that this research will eventually lead to possible drug candidates for the many patients, especially children, who are affected by sepsis every year,” says Professor Claude Libert (VIB-UGent).


Professor Claude Libert (VIB- Ghent University): “I am very enthusiastic about this SBO grant, because it allows to bring together experts from different scientific domains and to tackle the various, complex facets of sepsis.’ His team has been conducting research into the role of inflammation and metabolism in sepsis for many years. The extensive experience of the lab of Professor Karolien De Bosscher (VIB/Ghent University) with nuclear receptors will allow further investigation of the transcription factors involved in sepsis. And also the expertise of Professor Siska Croubels (Ghent University) and Professor Jan De Waele (Ghent University Hospital) on the interplay of sepsis and metabolism in large animals and human patients will lead to valuable insights.


Dr. Dominic De Groote, business development team: “We are also extremely pleased with the broad support from leading pharma & biotech companies for this innovative project. The aim of these companies is to translate the new insights into the disease mechanisms of sepsis into health applications in numerous domains such as feed, food, diagnostics and pharma for both animals and humans.”


Dr. Laetitia Cicchelero, Cross-Health platform coordinator: “This project fits in perfectly with the vision of the Cross-Health platform, which seeks synergies in the development of health applications for both humans and animals. STOP_SEPSIS is aimed at humans, but also offers opportunities in the veterinary sector, as sepsis and similar metabolic disorders also represent an unmet medical need for animals.”


About Ghent University

Ghent University (UGent) is a top 100 university in the Shanghai Ranking and one of the largest Belgian universities in the heart of Europe. We are an active partner in national and international educational, scientific and industrial cooperation. Our organization is committed to research and innovation with an annual research budget of more than €600 million and more than 5,500 researchers active in a wide range of life, physical and social sciences. UGent TechTransfer and the UGent Business Development Centers and Platforms, such as DiscoverE and Cross-Health respectively, support researchers in developing groundbreaking science to bring innovations to the market.

About Ghent University Hospital

Ghent University Hospital is one of the largest and most specialized hospitals in Flanders. 6,000 employees are committed to providing the best care for more than 3,000 patients every day. Together with the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences of Ghent University, Ghent University Hospital invests in scientific research and training. In this way, the hospital contributes to the healthcare of the future.

About VIB

Basic research in life sciences is VIB’s raison d’être. VIB is an independent research institute where some 1,500 top scientists from Belgium and abroad conduct pioneering basic research. As such, they are pushing the boundaries of what we know about molecular mechanisms and how they rule living organisms such as human beings, animals, plants and microorganisms. Based on a close partnership with five Flemish universities – Ghent University, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Hasselt University – and supported by a solid funding program, VIB unites the expertise of all its collaborators and research groups in a single institute. VIB’s technology transfer activities translate research results into concrete benefits for society such as new diagnostics and therapies and agricultural innovations. These applications are often developed by young start-ups from VIB or through collaborations with other companies. This also leads to additional employment and bridges the gap between scientific research and entrepreneurship. VIB also engages actively in the public debate on biotechnology by developing and disseminating a wide range of science-based information.