BioAlps | 20 years of innovation | UNIL
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UNIL | A commitment to transforming Life Sciences into concrete actions for the benefit of all
We are pleased to share with you our new testimonial series as part of our ecosystem’s 20th anniversary celebrations. The series aims to provide a platform for regional Life Sciences key players to present themselves, share their perspectives on the development of Western Switzerland’s Life Sciences ecosystem and their outlook on upcoming challenges and opportunities. The following article is presented to you by UNIL.
Presentation of UNIL’s activities
UNIL has more than 16’700 students and 5’000 employees, including 2’300 researchers/teachers: it is thus in a leading position in teaching and research in Western Switzerland. In the field of Life Sciences, its Faculty of Biology and Medicine (FBM) brings together 4’000 students and 1’872 staff, a significant part of whom are also active at the CHUV and Unisanté. The FBM is developing its competences in fundamental, clinical and translational research; its schools of medicine, biology, doctoral studies and nursing offer a wide range of education. The Faculty develops multiple transdisciplinary interactions with the human, social and environmental sciences carried out at UNIL. The early steps of bringing a promising academic research project towards private sector can be funded thanks to seeding money offered by the UNIL/CHUV Technology Transfer Bureau (PACTT).
Major Life Sciences trends and developments in Western Switzerland and UNIL’s contribution
The FBM owes its privileged position to its creation in 2003, resulting from the merger of UNIL’s previous Biology Section and Faculty of Medicine. It was born out of a vision of a union between clinical and fundamental research on humans, animals, plants and micro-organisms. The first concrete expression of this achievement, in 2003, was the Center for Integrative Genomics, which quickly became a magnet for internationally renowned researchers. In the same year, the Genomic Technologies Facility was created with UNIGE and EPFL, and has constantly evolved since, to provide the scientific community of Western Switzerland with high-tech skills and equipment. In this dynamic of continuous development, UNIL and EPFL have set up a Bioinformatics Competence Center in 2019, in close collaboration with the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics.
Major events which have contributed to the development of Life Sciences
In 2010, the development of the Lausanne branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research brought UNIL and the CHUV to world status in the field of onco-immunology and immunotherapy; this was consolidated by their participation in the AGORA cancer research cluster, in 2018, and in the Swiss Cancer Center Léman, which brings together the oncology researchers of the major institutions of Lake Geneva region. The development of FLASH radiotherapy in radiation oncology, in collaboration with CERN, completes this approach.
In 2017, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Professor Jacques Dubochet for his work on electron cryomicroscopy. This imaging method, which improves the visualisation of biomolecules, was used in 2020 to identify a key protein in the Covid-19 virus. The current UNIL-EPFL-UNIGE initiative to create the “Dubochet imaging centre” for cryo-electron microscopy aims to develop it further.
Since 2020, the FBM has been hosting the NCCR Microbiomes, in collaboration with teams from the ETH Zurich; Lausanne will thus lead the pioneering study of microbial communities on a national scale, in a field that holds great promise for human and animal health, agriculture and the environment.
Significant foreseeable trends and challenges in Life Sciences
Collecting, using, modelling and protecting data in Life Sciences has led to an increasing reliance on computer technology over the past decades: the more technical resources are available to produce data, the more skills and methods are needed to manage it. The Department of Computational Biology founded at UNIL in 2016 is playing an increasing role in developing this innovative field of research. In medicine, the rise of genomics and computational biology is enabling the emergence of optimised treatments for diseases such as cancers, metabolic or infectious diseases for each individual, known as “precision medicine”, a unit of which was created at the CHUV in 2017.
This promising dynamism of Life Sciences in Lausanne and Western Switzerland must however take into account the rise of a growing risk of fracture between the population and the world of research, on subjects as important as innovative therapies and their stakes. This is particularly true today with regard to research based on animal and human experimentation, soon to be subject to a federal popular initiative. In order to follow, or anticipate, the growing awareness of the suffering of animals, the FBM is developing projects highlighting all possible alternatives, such as stem cells or organoids, as well as the 3R practices, which all aim to reduce, as far as possible, the still unavoidable recourse to animal experimentation.
The exclusion of Switzerland from the Horizon Europe research framework program in May 2021 is another major risk for the development of Life Sciences in the very short term. Many researchers are in a state of uncertainty, while Swiss research institutions fear that they will be left out of major collaborative projects, or even that Switzerland’s scientific competitiveness will be dramatically reduced. It is vital that the authorities quickly succeed in restoring the rightful place of international research in our country.
UNIL to become a reference center for personal health accessible to all
With its wide range of research fields, UNIL intends to take up the major challenges at the intersection of Life Sciences and societal issues. It must cultivate and strengthen its interdisciplinary approach in order to tackle issues as complex as climate change, by associating Life Sciences with human, environmental and social sciences. The creation in 2016 of the Chair of Medicine for Vulnerable Populations, with a view to preventive, curative and diagnostic health accessible to all, has made Lausanne a national and European reference centre.
With its Faculty of Biology and Medicine, UNIL has developed an optimal organisation to combine medicine, nursing and biology. UNIL is thus ideally placed to teach and support Life Sciences projects, to provide a stable framework for future developments and to transform Life Sciences knowledge into concrete action for the benefit of all.