At the University of Antwerp, basic research in infectious diseases comprises
- the study of the pathogenesis, the underlying disease mechanisms and molecular epidemiology of infectious diseases, as well as
- the fundamental study of the immune system and immunological responses to infectious diseases.
The role of oxidative stress, virulence factors and specific pathogen-host interactions are studied with in-house developed in vitro and in vivo models. Furthermore, mechanisms of T cell immunity and tolerance are investigated by studying the immunobiology of dendritic cells using state-of-the-art techniques, such as ELISPOT, tetramer analyses, multiparametric flow cytometry, and cytokine/cytolytic arrays.
An additional strong focus of basic research is placed on the development of microbial resistance, including the genetics of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Development of advanced theranostic devices (e.g. rapid Point of Care Diagnostics, optical biosensors, lab-on-chip, microarrays) for pathogen detection and associated resistance will further our understanding of the factors contributing to the development of such resistance.
Effective and safe therapeutics and/or vaccines are currently lacking for a wide range of infectious diseases. Based on the results obtained in basic research, the research teams of the University of Antwerp are developing innovative therapeutics and vaccines.
To this end, a multidisciplinary consortium for the identification of new synthetic and natural lead compounds, with a particular focus on tropical protozoa, bacteria and fungi, was created. Validated in vitro test systems and drug screening technologies are available, in addition to relevant animal models for in vivo evaluation and validation purposes.
New and improved vaccines are developed, with the induction of antitumoral and antiviral cellular immune responses by special dendritic cells as one of the major research lines at the University of Antwerp. This expertise provides the basis for current phase I and II therapeutic vaccination programmes in leukaemia, HIV and allotransplant patients using autologous antigenloaded dendritic cell vaccines. Such vaccines are generated with an mRNA electroporation technique that was originally invented at the University of Antwerp.
This key area also includes the investigation of post-vaccination immunology by correlation of vaccine responsiveness with serology. Moreover, the increasing incidence of antibiotic resistance underlines the need for alternative strategies to treat bacterial infections. In this view, advanced techniques are applied to study the inhibition of virulence factors and to detect and eradicate biofilms.
Finally, the University of Antwerp also focuses on the development of advanced diagnostic (genetic) tests, including point-of-care tests and high-throughput diagnostics for infectious diseases. Another research line pertains to alternative routes of vaccine administration and novel injection devices for applications in dendritic cell and viral vaccines.
The University of Antwerp has access to state-of-the-art infrastructure to conduct and monitor clinical microbiological or vaccine trials (phase I to IV), such as clinical trials for dendritic cell or HPV vaccines. These are complemented with (sero)epidemiological studies on vaccine-preventable diseases and evaluation and validation of rapid genetic diagnostic tests for the detection of respiratory pathogens in samples from patients with severe lung infections. Data from clinical (vaccine) trials and (pharmaco)epidemiological surveys are analysed using the latest techniques in biostatistics, including extensive mathematical modeling of infectious diseases.
Furthermore, the University of Antwerp has considerable expertise in performing and optimizing economic evaluations in health care. This way, the economic costs associated with specific health programmes (e.g., vaccination programmes) and medical - epidemiological effects resulting from such programmes, are considered concomitantly in one analysis. Similarly, determinants of health and disease are studied using a combination of current methods and techniques of epidemiology, applied statistics and demography. For many diseases, these activities are carried out in an international context, as illustrated by the status of the University of Antwerp as a WHO Collaborating Centre for viral hepatitis vaccination programmes.
Regarding microbial resistance, multiple (international) research projects are currently running, including a combined functional and genetic study in which the abilities of various antibiotics to select for resistance in the respiratory and intestinal flora of patients and their contacts or in nonantibiotictreated controls are investigated.