New Flemish biotechnology company predicts immune responses to vaccines

New Flemish biotechnology company predicts immune responses to vaccines
A boy gets a special kid dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at the launch of a pilot phase for the vaccination of kids in Wallonia, Wednesday 12 January 2022. BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND

The University of Antwerp together with the Antwerp University Hospital have announced a new collaboration called ImmuneWatch, which predicts immune responses to vaccines. The creators of the initiative believe their technology will lead to higher efficiency in the production of future vaccines, diagnostics and immunotherapy.

Eight years ago, immunologist Benson Ogunjimi reached out to bioinformatician Kris Laukens about a possible collaboration to dig further into data sets.

"I do research on infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases, two areas where T cells play an important role," Ogunjimi said in a press release. ‘T cells are specialised immune cells that use a unique receptor molecule to detect and eliminate invaders such as viruses, bacteria and cancer cells.

Using the latest DNA techniques, we can systematically map millions of T cells in an individual’s blood sample. Up until now, finding out which T cell recognises which invader was only possible through expensive experiments."

Laukens' lab helped to weed through the enormous amounts of data collected in medical applications and find patterns and possible cures, creating an "Immune Map" as Laukens calls it. Dr Pieter Meysman, who helped to coordinate the research with the lab, is now the chief technology officer for ImmuneWatch.

"Our many years of experience in processing large data sets for medical applications allowed us to take on this challenge, which led to a pleasant and successful collaboration," Meysman said. "Our teams developed new technology based on artificial intelligence. That technology brought unravelling immune responses to the next level."

The next step for the new biotechnology company is making its product marketable, according to the press release. The researchers realised their technology could be used for a range of industries extending out from vaccines, including developing a blood test that can screen for immunological disorders.

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On 15 June, it was announced that Laukens and his team won the Scientific award from the AstraZeneca Foundation for their work to create the Immune Map.

"Our challenge now is to turn this academic knowledge into products that can help companies as quickly as possible," said Dr Sander Wuyts, CEO ImmuneWatch. "Just think of vaccine developers, who can use this to quickly evaluate whether their new vaccines elicit optimal immune responses. COVID-19 clearly demonstrated the importance of this."


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