By Prof. Dr. Jean-Claude Dujardin, Head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences
From the dawn of time, epidemics have afflicted humans and animals alike. Like the slow oscillations of a misunderstood pendulum, they perpetually return; they resonate in the movements of the Grim Reaper and contribute to his harvests. We operate in the shadow of this pendulum, as agile actors in a frantic quest for answers to new or persisting questions.
In 2014, a virus of the Filoviridae family, filamentous, enveloped, and non-segmented negative-stranded RNA viruses, hit the world as a reminder. As you likely already recognised, I am talking about Ebolaviruses (plural because there are five distinct strains), which had long been the source of many fears, and now once again became the target of all the news flashes.
Like numerous research groups worldwide, the Department of Biomedical Sciences has not ignored this viral vertigo and continues to provide its bio-technological support to the Belgian health authorities. In record time, our Unit of Virology, which discovered the virus in 1976, and colleagues from the Department of Clinical Sciences, secured the conditions necessary to enable rapid diagnostics to take place in Antwerp – a first in Belgium. Since the beginning of the outbreak, research projects on Ebola have been submitted and approved in emergency procedures. Now that the spotlights have been dimmed, it is time to set about developing science-driven research axes on Ebolaviruses now for when the next epidemic begins.
The filoviral threat and emergency should also not overshadow the other pathogens roaming tropical regions and other parts of the world. The “big 3” (the “classics”: HIV, Mycobacterium and Plasmodium) and the “small N” (Trypanosoma, Leishmania, helminthes, Apicomplexa and Arthropod vectors) kept our scientists busy in 2014. Furthermore, our department completed its portfolio with two new groups of pathogens – arboviruses and bacteria – welcoming two new tenure-track professors, Prof. Kevin Ariën (Virology) and Prof. Stijn Deborggraeve (Diagnostic Bacteriology), with the gracious support of the InBev Baillet-Latour Foundation. May the force be with you, guys!
Hyper-specialisation is risky from an evolutionary point-of-view in a changing environment. Our department aims at maintaining a diverse research portfolio, to keep us up-to-date to respond to changing needs and opportunities (as demonstrated during the Ebola crisis), and to optimally feed into our education programmes. In this context, the signature of the Memorandum of Understanding between ITM and the University of Pretoria, South Africa was clearly the highlight of our department in 2014. This agreement paves the way for the new joint Masters in Science in Tropical Animal Health that will start in a blended format in 2016.
Even in a department focusing on pathogens, the heart and soul of our activities is and should remain our people: both the men and women in the society we aim to move forward by our knowledge as well as the actors we are in our open-ended enquiry. As written by Richard Horton (Medical Library Association Meeting, 2004), “The most valuable lesson that knowledge can teach us is that its creation depends upon a continuous line of human relationships and traditions that go far back into the past. That continuity is an unbroken thread. It links cultures and peoples; it brings tolerance and understanding; it delivers hope and compassion.” We are ready to accompany the pendulum in its journey.