Catalyst Fund selects six projects in its 2020 funding round

© iStock

© iStock

The Catalyst Fund – supported by the Bertarelli Foundation – has selected six research projects to fund this year. Led by professors from EPFL and other Swiss Universities, these projects all aim to develop new treatment options for neurological disorders.

Created by the Bertarelli Foundation in 2017, the Catalyst Fund aims to invest in translational projects targeting innovative approaches for diseases affecting the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nervous system and sensory organs.

“The Catalyst Fund is designed to foster innovative research and the development of life-saving treatments for diseases in neuroscience,” says Ernesto Bertarelli. As the third call for proposals is now complete, six projects were selected for a total of CHF 1,788,619. “I offer my sincere congratulations to the six newest laureates at Campus Biotech,” declare the Co-Chair of the Foundation. “Each of these teams is pursuing research in extremely important and potentially high-impact areas of neuroscience and it is a great honour to be able to add extra fuel to the collaborative fire that is driving their vital work. I want to thank the other applications who, this time, we unfortunately could not select.”

Pierre Magistretti, chairman of the Catalyst Fund, adds: “The task of the Scientific Committee has been very rewarding due to excellent quality of the proposed projects, but at the same time, making the selection of the top six successful applications was quite challenging. This initiative provides a unique opportunity to leverage the outstanding potential of the Lemanic Neurosciences to promote basic research and translational projects in this field.”

A successful year with 40 proposals

This year, the call for proposals was very successful. “It’s a great validation of the vision that we had for the Catalyst Fund that this year, the programme’s third, we had over 40 proposals”, tells Bertarelli. “This extraordinary number, together with the fact that every submission was of a very high calibre, is a further proof that collaborative scientific research in Switzerland is in great health. I also warmly thank EPFL and the Catalyst Fund’s Scientific Committee for their superb work with this important programme.”

The scientists will use the proceeds to kick off their research and make rapid progress towards clinical applications.

More about the projects

Using cell grafts to repair brain damage

One of the biggest challenges in neuroscience today is developing safe, effective methods for repairing adult nerve-cell damage caused by neurological disorders. In this project, a team of scientists led by Jocelyne Bloch and Nicole Déglon from CHUV and Grégoire Courtine from EPFL has come up with a cell therapy-based method that involves grafts of autologous adult brain cells. The cells can be harvested from cortical biopsies, cultivated to produce autologous neural cell ecosystems (ANCEs) and reimplanted into the brain to repair damage. Bloch’s team has already found that such grafts can mediate functional recovery in nonhuman primates suffering from Parkinson’s disease or the consequences of a stroke. The next steps will be to conduct clinical trials on stroke victims and to further study the molecular profile of ANCEs and how this profile evolves following the reimplantation of ANCEs.

Measuring and preventing chronic pain

Chronic pain is a complex phenomenon shaped by a variety of factors going beyond mere body damage. In order to assess, characterize and predict chronic pain, Bigna Lenggenhager from the University of Zurich, Olaf Blanke from EPFL and Tristan Bekinschtein from the University of Cambridge developed a method that can be conducted entirely from home. Patients use a portable telemedical tool to take brain and behavioral measurements and perform self-reports. Because pain is largely influenced by attention, the scientists are studying how fluctuations in attention – whether spontaneous or experimentally induced – modulate pain changes in patients. These measurements provide key information about the time maps of chronic pain and the underlying brain signatures. The team’s findings may eventually be used to facilitate the prediction of pain levels and thereby improve chronic pain management and understanding.

Improving brain-image resolution through ultrasound

The conventional ultrasound examination of brain activity, commonly known as transcranial color-coded duplex or transcranial Doppler ultrasound (TCCD/TCD), has limited use for neurological applications and cerebral vascular imaging in human adults. That’s because adult skull bones act as a barrier to the propagation of ultrasound, thereby degrading imaging resolution. In this project, a team of scientists led by Fabienne Perren from the University of Geneva is developing a new technique for ultrafast ultrasound transcranial neuroimaging. By combining this type of neuroimaging procedure with a contrast agent, they were able to obtain super-resolved maps of brain vessels down to the capillary level – the scale of a human hair. The team will work with Philippe Ryvlin from the University of Lausanne and Olaf Blanke from EPFL to perform a clinical validation of the technique on healthy volunteers and conduct clinical confrontation trials on patients suffering from epilepsy and cerebrovascular pathologies.

Hearing music better by feeling its vibrations

Over 5% of the world’s population suffers from hearing impairments preventing them from fully experiencing the joy of listening to music. Although standard hearing aids can help, they do not cover the full auditory spectrum. In this project, Daniel Huber from the University of Geneva and Mario Prsa from the University of Fribourg will examine new ways for transforming the wide frequency spectrum of audible sounds into the range of vibrations perceptible by the somatosensory system. This research will go hand in hand with the design and development of a novel type of portable vibrotactile stimulation device that enhances the range of information perceived by hearing impaired and deaf individuals during musical performances.

Observing Parkinson’s inside the brain

Parkinson’s disease is often accompanied by neuropsychiatric symptoms such as anxiety, a lack of motivation and hallucinations. In this project, Paul Krack from the University of Bern, Vanessa Fleury from Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), and Olaf Blanke and Dimitri Van De Ville from EPFL will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on resting-state patients to investigate the underlying neural mechanisms of these symptoms and better understand the effects of dopaminergic medication on these patients’ brain activity. The team’s findings could pave the way to improved diagnoses and better targeted treatment strategies.

Understanding the mechanisms behind dry eyes

In this project, Denise Zysset-Burri and Martin Zinkernagel from the University of Bern are studying dry eye disease – an ocular surface condition that affects some 34% of the world’s population. Their goal is to assess the associations of patients’ local immune systems and ocular microbiomes, and the role they play in disease development. The results could give doctors a better understanding of the underlying disease mechanisms and eventually lead to a broader range of treatment options. This research could also have important implications for the prevention of dry eye disease and other immune-mediated diseases, such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.