De Weijerhorst Foundation (Stichting de Weijerhorst) is donating EUR 1.8 million to the Twente University Fund for research at the University of Twente (UT) into cancer detection. The donation agreement was signed by the parties involved today. The researchers at the UT’s MESA+ research institute intend to use the money to develop a tiny chip-sized laboratory that should ultimately make it possible to detect various types of cancer in urine.
Previous research conducted by the University of Twente and VU University Medical Center Amsterdam (VUmc) revealed strong indications that it is possible to demonstrate the presence of cancer by examining whether someone has specific signal chemicals in their urine. The substance concerned is ‘hypermethylated DNA’ (hmDNA): DNA fragments that have an additional ‘methyl group’.
In addition, the group’s position on the DNA also provides an indication of which type of cancer is involved. In principle, it is possible to use existing laboratory techniques to demonstrate the presence of cancer in urine based on hmDNA, but it remains very time-consuming and painstaking work.
Researchers at the UT therefore plan to use the De Weijerhorst Foundation’s donation to develop a lab on a chip that can integrate and automate the different stages of this research into a single system. This should make it easier to detect cancer more rapidly, reducing the cost of the process. Loes Segerink, leading researcher: “Ideally, our system should, in the long-term, enable cancer screening within large populations. An excellent first step in this process would be to use our method as a follow-up for patients who have already been treated for bladder cancer.”
One of the main challenges facing the project is to measure the presence of hmDNA, which is found in extremely low concentrations in urine. According to Segerink, only a fraction of the DNA fragments in urine is hypermethylated, and since the DNA concentration in urine is already very low, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The answer lies in concentrating the hmDNA fragments present and then making multiple copies so that sufficient hypermethylated fragments are available for measurement.
The research project is in three parts and will involve the systems for extracting hmDNA from urine, for copying the hmDNA fragments and finally for detecting the hmDNA. The project calls for expertise from completely different disciplines, ranging from cancer diagnostics to microfluidics. Segerink believes that this multidisciplinary approach is actually what makes the research team so effective. “All of them are leading lights in their own specialist fields, working together to make this project a success.”
The four-year project is being coordinated by Loes Segerink and Albert van den Berg from the UT’s MESA+ research institute. The researchers are working in close collaboration with the VUmc Cancer Centre Amsterdam.
The donation agreement was signed today on the University of Twente campus by representatives of De Weijerhorst Foundation, the Twente University Fund Foundation, the University of Twente and the MESA+ research institute.
Maurice Essers, Director of the Twente University Fund Foundation, is extremely grateful to De Weijerhorst Foundation for the donation: ”Since regular research-funding authorities are focusing increasingly on more applied research, a gap is emerging between more fundamental research and the market. This is an area in which private charitable institutions and individuals can really make a difference.”
Albert van den Berg adds: “The funding from De Weijerhorst Foundation will allow us to develop extremely sensitive sensors that can detect cancer at an early stage. By using the cleanroom facilities at the acclaimed MESA+ Nanolab, we can develop innovative, risky nanotechnologies for which no other funding is available. This will enable us to prevent a lot of unnecessary suffering and ensure that cancer can be dealt with at an early stage with minimum intervention.”
De Weijerhorst Foundation has a dual statutory objective: to support and promote activities in the public interest, in particular scientific research, and to maintain and promote profitable industrial and trading activities in the Netherlands through its subsidiary Particon B.V. Each year, De Weijerhorst Foundation makes considerable donations to various beneficiaries, with a special focus on medical research. The Foundation considers this one of its core activities, as it enables a large number of research teams – made up of professors, doctoral candidates, students and technical specialists – to carry out important research, both in the academic environment and at commercial research institutes. For more information: www.deweijerhorst.nl.