EPFL Professors win 2021 Leenaards Foundation Science Prizes

Professors Elisa Oricchio and Gregoire Courtine. Credit: Alain Herzog/EPFL.

Professors Elisa Oricchio and Gregoire Courtine. Credit: Alain Herzog/EPFL.

EPFL Professors Elisa Oricchio and Gregoire Courtine, have been awarded Leenaards Science Prizes for their research projects.

The Leenaards Scientific Prize (Prix Recherche Biomédicale Translationnelle) is given each year by the Leenaards Foundation to “support translational research on human diseases by strengthening the links between clinical sciences and basic sciences.” This year, the Foundation has awarded two Scientific Prizes to research groups at EPFL, amounting to a total of CHF 1.4 million.

A brain-spinal cord interface helps regain use of legs

One of the projects is led by Professor Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist with EPFL’s School of Life Sciences, and will study the brain-spinal cord interface to help paraplegics regain the use of their legs. Professor Courtine will work with Professor Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at the University Hospital of Vaud (CHUV), and Guillaume Charvet, project manager at CEA-Leti Clinatec in Grenoble. The project has already enabled nine previously wheelchair-bound patients to walk again in a semi-autonomous way. 

“Our goal is to enable paraplegic patients to regain the use of their legs and the upright position thanks to the union of wireless technology for measuring and decoding brain activity and neurostimulation,” says Courtine. Professor Bloch adds, "The key to walking as naturally as possible is that it can adapt to the patient's will, as well as to the speed and rhythm of his or her movement, just as we do almost unconsciously when we walk."

The ultimate goal is to implant an electroencephalogram-measuring device located under the skull on the surface of the brain cortex. The device, like Clinatec’s WIMAGINE® wireless device, will record the patient’s movement intention. "The next step will be to decode this electroencephalogram brain activity –corresponding to an intention to move – into electrical stimulation sequences in the spinal cord, which will then be transmitted to the nerves controlling the legs," says Charvet.

Awakening the immune system to fight lymphatic cancer

The other winning project is led by Professor Elisa Oricchio at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences, with Professor Bruno Correia at EPFL’s School of Engineering, and Professor Caroline Arber at the Department of oncology of UNIL CHUV and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (Lausanne Branch). The project will develop anti-cancer molecules to activate the immune system which can recognize and kill tumor cells. In particular, the aim is to develop novel therapeutic molecules that can block the activity of the protein cathepsin S in tumours. In blood cancers like lymphoma and also in various other tumors, cathepsin S acts as an oncogene and has been identified as a promising therapeutic target.

“We are delighted with this opportunity to work together and have the possibility to tackle this problem from its molecular roots all the way to a translational perspective,” says Oricchio. “Our different expertise at the molecular, cellular, and translational levels will synergize to solve a complex problem, which will open new possibilities for cancer treatment.”

“We believe this to be a great example of what engineers, biologists and physicians can do together and we hope to also learn general strategies that may open new therapeutic routes for other malignancies,” adds Correia.

Official Leenaards Foundation press release