Belgian team secures million-dollar funding from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic endeavour led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his partner Priscilla Chan, has announced the launch of its Neurodegeneration Challenge Network.  

This new network brings together experimental scientists from various biomedical research fields, computational biologists, and physicians to understand the underlying causes of neurodegenerative disorders.

One of the selected teams is the consortium led by Professor Patrik Verstreken (VIB-KU Leuven), Professor Wim Vandenberghe (University Hospitals Leuven) and Dr Dries Braeken (imec).

"Neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and ALS, are a class of diseases that affect millions of people worldwide," says CZI Science Program Officer Katja Brose. "Meanwhile, the causes of most neurodegenerative diseases are only partly understood, and there are still no effective therapies to cure, prevent, or even treat most of these disorders."

The CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network now seeks to address these gaps by launching a collaborative network to focus on neurodegenerative diseases as a broad class of disorders, with shared features and potentially shared solutions. The Belgian team plans to create a new chip to study the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease.

The goal is to ’print’ tiny portions of the human brain on a unique chip, giving researchers access to brain tissue from both patients and healthy individuals. 

- Patrik Verstreken

"We will produce mature human neuronal microcircuits that are relevant to Parkinson’s disease on a multi-electrode array chip," explains Braeken. "This chip will be used to measure electrophysiological changes between neuronal circuits of cells obtained from healthy people and from a large number of Parkinson’s patients." The 2D chip is a first step towards developing a 3D human-relevant model for brain function and disease.

Professor Verstreken stresses the relevance of this resource: "The goal is to ’print’ tiny portions of the human brain on a unique chip, giving researchers access to brain tissue from both patients and healthy individuals. We can use this technology to track disease progression and to screen for strategies to correct the problems."

According to Professor Vandenberghe, the potential benefits go well Parkinson’s disease: "We’ll develop this chip using tissue from patients with Parkinson’s disease but the same technology can also be used to create better models for Huntington’s disease -  or any other neurodegenerative disease, for that matter."

The foundation selected nine international project teams. Each team will receive $1.05 million. In addition to the Belgian consortium, only one other non-US team was selected. 

"Despite great investments and progress in understanding neurodegenerative diseases, we still lack a lot of very basic information about their biology," Katja Brose concludes. "By supporting these nine interdisciplinary collaborations and generating shared tools, resources and platforms, we hope to inspire a new approach to tackling neurodegenerative disease - one that leverages the combined power of basic science and technology to accelerate progress towards clinical goals."