New biosensors for clinical diagnostics

Proof of Concept: Professor Koeppl awarded 150,000 euros grant by the European Research Council


Two scientists at the TU Darmstadt have been awarded a “Proof of Concept” grant of 150,000 euros by the European Research Council (ERC). Professor Heinz Koeppl received the award for his project “LONGSENSE”, Professor Leopoldo Molina-Luna for his project “STARE”.

Professor Heinz Koeppl

Professor Heinz Koeppl is Head of the Department of Bioinspired Communication Systems at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology, and a second member of the Department of Biology. “LONGSENSE” is about the development of a simple, cheap and versatile method for detecting disease indicators.

TU Darmstadt: Professor Koeppl, the European Research Council, ERC, has decided to support your Proof of Concept project “LONGSENSE – A novel biosensor for lncRNA” to the sum of 150,000 euros. What is the project actually about?

Professor Heinz Koeppl: LONGSENSE is a new detection method for long non-coding RNA molecules (lncRNA), which in recent years have proven to be indicative of diseases in various categories. They include, for instance, neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases and several types of cancer.

The process is based on special small RNA structures (STARs – small transcriptional activators) that can activate gene transcription in the presence of the corresponding lncRNA. This makes it easy, for instance, to control the expression of a fluorescent reporter molecule for optical detection. Standardised cell-free expression systems should serve as a platform for these reactions. The dedicated STARs are designed and optimised in LONGSENSE with the help of biophysical simulations and deep neural networks.

PoC projects are intended to contribute to the practical implementation of a research result from an ERC grant project. What is the link between the PoC project and your ERC grant project CONSYN? At what point in your research did you realise that there was potential for technology transfer here?

The STAR regulators mentioned are used in my ERC project CONSYN to build genetic logic circuits for synthetic biology. It has been shown in CONSYN that STARs can be very well designed using computer methods and combined with cell-free expression systems. Colleagues in the USA have shown in recent years that these expression systems can be used to design cost-effective biosensors for disposable or laboratory diagnostics. The two storylines led to this transfer idea.

What are the medical possibilities of your research, which is now to be developed for market readiness with the LONGSENSE project? What concrete applications do you see in the medium or long term?

PCA3 is currently the only approved lncRNA-based biomarker for prostate cancer. At the moment, a number of lncRNAs are either undergoing advanced clinical trials or are already in the approval process. So it is possible that there will be an increased need in the future for fast, cost-effective tests for lncRNAs in laboratory diagnostics or in everyday medical practices. Due to its simplicity in terms of laboratory infrastructure and parallelisability, a test of this kind can be an attractive alternative to traditional test methods based on qPCR.

The proposed molecular principle can also be applied to the detection of other RNAs, such as viral RNA. For medical use, an existing collaboration with the Baylor College of Medicine, USA, is available for reference purposes. The Merck company has expressed an interest in the detection process, and has supported the application with a memorandum of understanding.

Questions asked by Silke Paradowski.

About the individual

Heinz Koeppl studied physics at the University of Graz, Austria. In 2004, he received his doctorate in electrical engineering from the Graz University of Technology in cooperation with Infineon Technologies. After post-doctoral stays at UC Berkeley and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), he was appointed assistant professor at ETH Zurich in 2010. In 2013, he founded and headed the Systems Biology Group at IBM Research Zurich. Since January 2014, he has been Head of the Department of Bioinspired Communication Systems at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at TU Darmstadt, and is a second member of the Department of Biology. In 2017, the European Research Council (ERC) awarded Koeppl an “ERC Consolidator Grant” and funded his project “CONSYN – Contextualizing biomolecular circuit models for synthetic biology” to the sum of two million euros.

Proof of Concept

Proof of Concept is a supplementary grant to the research grants of the ERC. It is aimed exclusively at scientists who already hold an ERC grant and who want to pre-commercialise a research result from a current or completed project. This is the first step towards a technology transfer. The aim of a Proof of Concept project is to check the market potential of such an idea. So rather than funding research activities with it, the ERC finances measures for further development with a view to the maturity of application, commercialisation or marketing of the idea. In the most recent funding round, 55 researchers from 17 countries were awarded an ERC Proof of Concept grant. The grants are part of the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.