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IBBL (Integrated BioBank of Luxembourg) is the central biobank for a pioneering EU project that aims to lead to new diagnostic tests to assess patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and identify those most at risk for developing severe inflammation and liver scarring. Luxembourg’s biobank contributes its expertise to a consortium of 47 research partners based at leading international universities and some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

Affecting 20 – 30 % of the population worldwide, NAFLD is caused by a build-up of fat in the liver cells, which leads to inflammation, scarring of the liver and ultimately cirrhosis. It is strongly linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Although many people have NAFLD, less than one in 10 will come to harm as a result. The challenge is to identify those people that will be most severely affected and are going to progress to liver cirrhosis or cancer so that appropriate care can be provided earlier. At present this requires a liver biopsy, which can only be done in specialist hospitals, so there is a need for better diagnostic tools.

Liver Investigation: Testing Marker Utility in Steatohepatitis (LITMUS) funded by the European Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking (IMI), brings together clinicians and scientists from prominent academic centres across Europe with companies from the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA). Their common goals are developing, validating and qualifying better biomarkers for testing NAFLD. The €34 million project is co-ordinated by Newcastle University, working closely with the lead EFPIA partner, Pfizer Ltd.

THE CENTRAL BIOBANK

As the central biobank for the project, IBBL will gather all of the biological samples that are currently stored at the other partners’ site. IBBL will also serve as the central collection and storage point for the samples that will be freshly collected for the LITMUS project from at least 1500 patients all across Europe. The biobank will store blood, plasma, serum, DNA, RNA, urine, stool and liver biopsies and create a catalogue of the samples and their associated data that is made available to the research community.

“These EU grants are highly competitive. You really need to add substantial value to a consortium in order to be considered as a partner by these prestigious university and pharma companies,” comments Dr Catherine Larue, CEO of IBBL. “I think we can be very proud. The fact that this is already the second IMI project that we are part of, shows that we have gained an international reputation as a reliable, quality-driven biobank and a valuable partner for EU consortia. “

BETTER DIAGNOSTIC TESTS

Professor Quentin Anstee, from Newcastle University’s Institute of Cellular Medicine and Consultant Hepatologist at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, is co-ordinating the LITMUS consortium. He said: “LITMUS will unite clinicians and academic experts from centres across Europe with scientists from the leading pharmaceutical companies, all working together to develop and validate new highly-accurate blood tests and imaging techniques that can diagnose the severity of liver disease, predict how each patient’s disease will progress and monitor those changes, better or worse, as they occur.”

“Lack of easy and accurate diagnostic tests means that many patients go undiagnosed until late in the disease process. It has also held back efforts to develop new medical treatments for NAFLD. Availability of better diagnostic tests will help us to target care at an early stage of disease to the people who are going to be most severely affected. It will also help us to develop more effective medical treatments for NAFLD and to run the clinical trials that the regulatory agencies need so that they can licence these medicines to be prescribed by doctors.”

This project has received funding from the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking under grant agreement No 777377. This Joint Undertaking receives support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and EFPIA.

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