inSCIde the spotlight: Professor Annelies Bronckaers Oct 29, 2018
Prof. dr. Annelies BRONCKAERS
Every two seconds, someone on this planet will face the terrible consequences of having a stroke. Today on ‘World Stroke Day’ we ask ourselves the question: What do we actually know about stroke? What is its impact on our society? And what are scientists researching this condition up to?
UNDER THE RADAR
“Everything can change at any moment, suddenly and forever” – Paul Auster.
Every year new professors start their academic journey at Hasselt University. In ‘inSCIde the Spotlight’ we want to showcase their hopes, dreams and especially research to the world. Today on ‘World Stroke Day’ we aim our inSCIght spotlight at professor Annelies Bronckaers.
“We can define a stroke as a condition where the blood supply to the brain gets disrupted. This results in oxygen starvation, brain damage and a loss of function. Up to 80 % of the cases are caused by the blockage of an artery that supplies blood to our brain, a situation known as ischemia. The other cases are the result of a blood vessel bursting, causing the sudden leakage of blood into the brain. This is called a hemorrhage.”
The outcome is poor. It is the second leading cause of death worldwide, taking a life every five seconds. Those who survive have more than 50 % change of leaving the hospital with a disability. "Stroke causes more disabilities than any other known disease. And the future is not looking bright either. By 2035 the number of worldwide stroke-related illness, disability and early death is set to double, reaching epidemic proportions."
Yet despite these numbers and prospects, the amount of exposure and research conducted within this field is far lower than that of cancer, coronary heart diseases or other neurodegenerative disorders. Fortunately, there are those who try to make a much-needed impact within this field like Prof. Bronckaers.
A STEM CELL REVOLUTION
“During my Ph.D. I worked in cancer research. My goal was to stop angiogenesis, the formation of blood vessels, in order to prevent the growth and spreading of cancer within our body. However, now my objective has turned a full 180 degrees, as I want to use the angiogenesis process to stop the effects of ischemic stroke.”
In order to achieve this, Prof. Bronckaers uses a very unique approach that holds a lot of potential. “In our lab we use dental stem cells as a therapy strategy in order to counter the long-term consequences of a stroke. We use these cells, unmodified as well as genetically modified, to guide the neural stem cells that are already inside our brain to the damaged areas through neurotropic factors."
"These neurotrophic factors are biomolecules that support the growth, migration, survival and differentiation of neural stem cells and neurons. There is still much to learn about the neurotrofic abilities of dental stem cells, but the results are already exciting. I sometimes get caught cheering in the lab with my Ph.D. students when we make a breakthrough.”
THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF MAGNETISM
However, this is not the only solution that Prof. Bronckaers is working on. On top of her dental stem cell approach she is looking at the short-term use of low-frequency electromagnetic stimulation on the progression of a stroke by stimulating angiogenesis.
"The strength of the magnetic field used is much lower than for example that of an MRI. The main advantage of this technique is that it doesn’t require specialized personnel to operate and is a lot cheaper than the currently used therapy strategy, namely tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), which is a protein that can break down blood clots. Currently we are investigating what the exact molecular mechanism of this technique is.“
“I really hope that stroke will get more exposure in the future and that more people will join our research efforts within this field. In the end, my dream is to work together with pharmaceutical firms and physicians to develop a new working therapy for stroke. If I ever get to make a real impact on people’s life, my goal in life will be achieved.”
These projects are supported by the Biomedical Research Institute (BIOMED) of Hasselt University. The projects are executed in collaboration with Yörg Dillen (UHasselt), Greet Merckx (UHasselt), Hannelore Kemps (UHasselt), dr. Esther Wolfs (UHasselt), Prof. R. Lemmens (KULeuven-VIB), Prof. U. Himmelreich (KULeuven), Prof. I. Lambrichts (UHasselt), Prof. L. Perez (CNEA, Cuba) and Prof. B. Brône (UHasselt). Funding is provided by FWO (small research grant 1522518N and Ph.D. fellowship of Yörg Dillen) and Special Research Fund (BOF) of Hasselt University (BOF18NI06).