Twenty million euros for fighting Alzheimer’s using big data

Thanks to Big Data, we are now for the first time able to analyse large amounts of data quickly and to discover patterns in it that say something about the prevention and prediction of diseases. The Province of Limburg, Maastricht UMC+ and Maastricht University (UM) are therefore jointly investing €20 million in a new research institute, called BReIN (Brightlands e-Infrastructure for Neurohealth). The institute’s objective is to create an adequate infrastructure for the collection, storage and processing of big data in healthcare. A comprehensive study of Alzheimer's disease will serve as a ‘prototype’. The spiritual father of BReIN is Maastricht professor of Environmental Health, Jos Kleinjans.


Because the population is ageing relatively quickly, dementia will have an increasing social and economic impact in the coming years, partly due to the heavy burden of care placed on caregivers. Environmental factors such as harmful chemicals, certain foods or a lack of exercise play a determining, but largely unknown, role in the development of Alzheimer's. Therefore, researchers will first analyse brain and blood samples from patients of the Alzheimer Centrum Limburg. This will be done in collaboration with euregional partners such as the universities of Liège and Leuven as well as the supercomputer centre in the German city of Jülich. BReIN will initially serve as a platform for collecting data, such as genomic data or data from MRI scans. To gain a better understanding of environmental factors, experimental research is also needed. Together with international partners, BReIN scientists will therefore develop a stem cell platform for brain organoids.

Big Data

Modern analysis techniques such as genomics and imaging, as well as the use of increasingly detailed standard patient data, provide a large volume of digital data. Especially after the recent increase in European regulations, a lot of attention will be given to protecting the privacy of patients within the project. For these reasons, among others, scientists from the Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus will work closely with data technologists from the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen. UM’s Institute for Data Sciences (IDS@UM) will play a coordinating role in this. “BReIN is fully committed to improving diagnostics and discovering potential starting points for new, effective and safe medicines, particularly for the early phase of Alzheimer's disease. Because of this, BReIN has the potential to have a major impact on healthcare”, says Prof. Kleinjans. “This is not only socially relevant, but it will also provide significant opportunities for economic gains in the region.”


For the time being, the Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus is primarily focused on commercialising products and services for medical diagnostics and treatment. With BReIN, a new domain is being added from Heerlen—bringing to the market IT solutions and analysis software related to big data in healthcare. But valorisation can also take place in a completely different area: the prevention of Alzheimer's disease may be possible through the consumption of vegetables that are bred to ‘catch’ harmful metals in the body before they reach the brain. Seed breeding companies in the Venlo region can play a particular role in this. “This type of information can be very important because of the possibilities for prevention”, said Prof. Frans Verhey, head of the Alzheimer Centrum Limburg. “There are currently no medicines that are effective against Alzheimer’s, and eliminating potential risk factors is the best option for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.”


BReIN will also make a major contribution to the international image of Limburg as a top technological region for life sciences and big data in healthcare. The Brightlands campuses play a central role within the institute, as well as connect knowledge institutes in Antwerp, Leuven, Liege, Brussels, Luxembourg, Jülich, Bonn and even the northern French city of Lille. This is in line with the policy of the European Commission that, especially for this type of research, encourages interregional cooperation. Limburg Regional Minister for Economic Affairs and Knowledge Infrastructure Joost van den Akker: “Thanks to the knowledge infrastructure at Brightlands, a great deal of knowledge and expertise has been collected in specific areas such as life sciences & health at the Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus and big data at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen. Because of the crossovers between these campuses, there is a constant exchange of knowledge. BReIN will contribute to making the lives of people with illnesses like Alzheimer's diseases more bearable. To make this happen, thorough research is needed. The Limburg Provincial Execute fully supports this research.

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