IMI Programme Office: As project coordinators, which RAPP-ID achievements are you most proud of?
Herman Goossens: It is technically very challenging to develop rapid diagnostic tests for diagnosing infectious diseases. In the past, some very fancy technologies were developed; however, the engineers who developed them were often disconnected from the real patients suffering from infectious diseases. So what we tried to do during the first 9 months was to agree on tables specifying what diagnostic tests for different infectious diseases should even look like.
We focused mainly on respiratory infections such as flu but also other diseases such as blood infections, where bacteria get into blood and you need to be able to detect them rapidly. We brought clinical doctors together with the technology experts, so that they could understand each other much better, and eventually we came up with specifications of what such diagnostic tests should be able to do for different types of infectious diseases. RAPP-ID is the first project that I am aware of which developed such documents and we are convinced that they would be very helpful for anybody who wants to start working on diagnostic tests for infectious diseases in the future.
IMI Programme Office: Your project also developed various technologies which could help speed up future development of diagnostic tests for infectious diseases. Which technologies would you single out?
Jorge Villacian: The prototype of the breath sampler for influenza, which was developed within the project, is very innovative.
It is an instrument which you exhale into which captures very tiny molecules on your breath and then uses that sample to detect the presence of pathogens. In a laboratory setting, we demonstrated that the instrument is able to capture airborne pathogens. We then tested a prototype on patients in the clinic. That’s where we left it, but I think it could be now picked up by somebody else for further development.
So far in clinical practice, there are no rapid point-of-care tests for detection of infections that are based on something as non-invasive as breathing out. Of course, we are aware of the fact that we’re not there yet – this is still in an early stage of the development process. But the technology itself may be useful for other fields (outside of infectious diseases) as well. The next step would be to find out which applications the instrument would be the most useful for, so what diseases, and then go through clinical trials to test whether the results are giving us something that is correlated to a disease process.
IMI Programme Office: Any other achievements which you would like to highlight?
Herman Goossens: Another achievement of the project is the ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) test. VAP is a very serious infection in people who are admitted to the intensive care unit, have tubes in their respiratory tracts, and develop pneumonia. Patients with VAP have a very high risk of dying so it is very important to develop diagnostic tests that could detect these infection-causing bacteria very quickly. In RAPP-ID we developed chips, slightly bigger than matchboxes, which help us extract the DNA of these bacteria from aspirates of VAP patients.
The amount of DNA that we can extract from these bacteria is very low and difficult to detect. Therefore we have also developed a second chip which has the ability to amplify or multiply the DNA from these samples.
The next step would be to integrate these chips into a read-out instrument, together with software, and develop a diagnostic test. But that would take many more years to develop and also a lot of money. Unfortunately we weren’t able to do that by the end of the project.
IMI Programme Office: Some of the results of this project are now being taken up by other projects funded by the European Union. How many spin out projects are there and which RAPP-ID technologies are they developing further?
Herman Goossens: There are at least two spin out projects funded by the European Union. In the first one, the objective was to develop a rapid diagnostic test for urinary tract infections. Acute bladder infections are often caused by bacteria that are very resistant to antibiotics and we developed a chip which can detect these drug-resistant bacteria. The chip is similar to the one we developed in RAPP-ID for VAP patients.
The second very important spin out project, which we are extremely proud of, is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie project: New diagnostics for infectious diseases (ND4ID). In Marie Skłodowska-Curie projects, scientists have the chance to work at different academic and industrial centres across Europe – these are very competitive and exciting projects for young researchers. Many of the partners who were participating in RAPP-ID are also partners in this project. It only started in March 2016 and will run until early 2020. We have recruited 15 very promising young PhD students – we hope that this will be the next generation of young investigators to develop new diagnostic tests for infectious diseases.
IMI Programme Office: How did the pharmaceutical industry benefit from being involved in this project?
Jorge Villacian: In many ways this project was a reality check regarding the effort it takes to bring specific diagnostic tests to the point where they could be used in the drug development process. In the future, we will be much more focused and smart when trying to combine drug development and diagnostics.
We will also benefit from other knowledge generated in the project. As for the technologies which were developed, they could potentially also be useful, but it depends on whether they are taken up for further development and commercialised.
IMI Programme Office: How did the academic community benefit from this project?
Herman Goossens: The academic community benefitted in several ways. First of all, we had the opportunity to further develop our technologies, to expand them, but also to interact with other academic partners and with industry, and add certain components to our technology platforms which we could not have developed on our own.
Secondly, through collaboration with industry, academic partners have learned more about challenges of what it takes to develop such diagnostic tests from an industry and regulatory perspective, and bring them to the market. It takes a lot of time and resources, and thanks to this project, we have learned to fully appreciate that.
As in other public-private collaborations, the combination of the two cultures of working together was also a great learning experience. For example, I come from an academic centre, and thanks to working with the industry, I have learned to be far more objectives-driven, and focused on impact, cost and commercial benefits. I think this has certainly been a great benefit for other academic partners in the project as well.
IMI Programme Office: Would all the project achievements have been possible without IMI?
Herman Goossens: No absolutely not! And that’s why it is important to have these public-private partnerships which bring academia and the private sector together. This, of course, is one of the great advantages of having IMI in Europe – we can merge the public interest with the interest of the private sector.
IMI Programme Office: What was the most rewarding aspect of the project for you personally?
Herman Goossens: The greatest value for me personally was the relationship with partners from both the private and public sectors. Several of these partners became friends. I have greatly appreciated this and, for me, RAPP-ID project team really became like a family.
Jorge Villacian: It was the exactly same thing for me. It has been a really nice environment to work in.
IMI Programme Office: Jorge, what was it like to be the project coordinator? If you could travel back in time and give yourself a piece of advice at the moment when the project started, what would it be?
Jorge Villacian: I would tell myself to go into this project with a very open mind. Learn to understand where each of the individual entities and people are bringing most value to the project; listen; and try to make all of this gel together in a way that you can actually move something forward. For a project coordinator, it is all about listening, learning what everyone is bringing to the consortium and trying to channel that to the most successful output, rather than imposing your views or thoughts. You need to try to steer things but in a consortium of 20+ partners, it is impossible to manage things successfully if you’re just driving things forward without being inclusive.