Basic research where curiosity leads to groundbreaking innovation

​Although VIB is heavily focused on transforming research insights into solutions to the real problems faced by humanity, the beating heart of VIB is strategic basic research conducted by world-class scientists in our labs. After all, 20 years of experience in basic science has taught us that some of the most groundbreaking innovations come up by chance as outcomes of fundamental research.

The freedom to explore, the facilities to experiment
Scientific freedom and tangible results might sound like opposites, but they are inextricably linked. At VIB, scientists are granted full rein when it comes to their research and the facilities they have at their disposal. Their curiosity, expertise and previous findings lead them to freely pursue new projects, new angles and seek new information. Possible applications of their results inevitably pop up along the way.

Jo Bury (Managing Director, VIB): “Basic research is the absolute cornerstone of our institute. If you want to move scientific frontiers, you need to give researchers both the freedom and the facilities they need to work on the questions that inspire them. If we change that, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Jo: “World-class science is a moving target – we have to set the bar higher every day. That’s exactly what we do, but it requires tons of creativity on a continuous basis. VIB isn’t after low-hanging fruit. We want to publish revolutionary findings. We want the next big breakthrough.”

When basic research has unexpected – and amazing – results
An example of a basic research study by VIB scientists that may lead to unexpected new pathogenic insights is a study led by Wim Annaert (VIB – KU Leuven) on Alzheimer’s disease. A hallmark of this illness is the aggregation of clumps of proteins in the brain, leading to the eventual destruction of brain cells. Wim and his team set out to investigate the function, structure and physiology of γ-secretase – an enzyme that cuts proteins into the smaller pieces that eventually combine to form clumps, or amyloid plaques.

However, in the process of conducting the research, Wim and his collaborators discovered that not just one, but two different γ-secretases contribute to the creation of two different pools of toxic amyloid proteins. The insight they gained into γ-secretases provides a foundation for new cellular and in vivo models for Alzheimer’s disease that could potentially allow researchers to intervene very early on in the development of the illness, when it can still be halted or even reversed.

Wim Annaert: “It was totally unanticipated that even after 20 years of investigating this topic, there are still important things to be discovered – which we could have only accomplished through a basic research approach. This kind of research is often underfunded, and the fact remains that it is still essential to understanding the molecular basis of disease onset, particularly in neurodegenerative diseases.”

Sanneruda et al., Cell 2016