4 November 2019
Collection week Dutch Alzheimer's Foundation

BReIN to tackle Alzheimer’s using big data

He has every reason to beam. Earlier this year Jos Kleinjans, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Maastricht University (UM), received the final word on a multi-year, multi-million-euro contribution to his brainchild, the Brightlands e-Infrastructure for Neurohealth (BReIN for short). This research institute will open up new horizons in the application of big data in healthcare. 

For the connections between Daalhof and Randwyck, we’re fortunate to be able to use the existing fibre-optic network here in South Limburg. The motorway is already in place, so to speak. All we have to do is create a few entrances and exits for our BReIN infrastructure, which we’re currently working on. We’ll need an exit at Heerlen, because our backup facility will be on the Brightlands Smart Services Campus. And from there the data highway runs across to Germany, all the way to the supercomputer centre in Jülich. The amount of computing power that BReIN requires is simply not available locally, and Jülich has some of the most powerful computers in the world, so we’re taking advantage of it!”

Stem-cell models

Another part of the BReIN initiative involves linking gene expression, measured in experiments with environmental factors, to biopsies and scans of Alzheimer’s patients. “Pesticides are a good example. Scientists suspect that exposure to pesticides increases the chance of developing Alzheimer’s. But more evidence is needed, so we want to use brain organoids to test the influence of environmental factors like pesticides. To do that, we need to make neuronal stem-cell models, which is not so easy. Making a cell model of cancer cells is child’s play in comparison; the cancer cells proliferate over the edge of the petri dishes in no time. But the question is to what extent a cell model reflects the actual situation in humans. Programming stem cells is a different story, especially when it comes to neuronal stem cells. Some of our researchers will spend time in California this autumn to work on these topics. Did you know that Arnold Schwarzenegger made California the mecca of stem-cell research during his time as governor? Fortunately, UM recently began collaborating with the University of California at Irvine, so we expect to be able to take major steps in this area. Also, to make precise and unbiased genomic analyses both of patients and of our stem-cell experiments, our genome centre needs an upgrade. So we’re currently setting up a new lab with the latest equipment for DNA and RNA sequencing.”

Brightlands

kleinjans

Following the tightening of European legislation, BReIN will pay close attention to protecting patient privacy, including through the use of blockchain technology. To facilitate this, scientists from the Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus will cooperate with data technologists from the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen. “We’re talking with a dozen or so companies on the Heerlen campus with which we hope to collaborate fruitfully in the future. Spin-offs and start-ups, but also leading global companies like Accenture. With BReIN, our goal is not only to conduct top scientific research; we also want to commercialise analysis software and IT solutions focused on big data in healthcare. This means tapping into an entirely new domain. At present the commercialisation activities on the Brightlands Maastricht Health campus mainly focus on products and services for medical diagnostics and treatment. This is something we’ll also keep on doing through BReIN. For example, I can imagine that we’ll eventually sell our stem-cell models through the health campus.”

By: Mark van der Linde (text), Harry Heuts (photography)