The bid, which has the support of Nantes Métropole and the Pays de la Loire Regional Council, is for the formation of a University Hospital Institute (Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire, IHU), to be called the European Centre for Transplantation Sciences and Immunotherapy, to specialise in translating research through to the clinic.
The French government is to set up a total of 5 IHUs with funding of €850 million from the country’s Grand Emprunt, or National Bond Scheme.
The Nantes-based IHU project is being led by Jean-Paul Soulillou and currently involves over 1,100 staff. This includes almost 200 researchers, which is one of the French government’s criteria for the future IHUs.
Soulillou said, “Over the last ten years or so, Nantes University Hospital has adopted a novel, institute-based organisational structure which fosters high-quality research, translational medicine and innovation. This approach results in close, patient-centred collaboration between researchers and clinicians and enables two-way knowledge exchange, from bench to bedside, and beside to bench. It leverages the latest knowledge for the direct benefit of patients and medical innovation.
“Our research groups, most of which are already working in Nantes-based institutes [...] have long adopted a project-based culture for managing their cross-disciplinary medical care, research and teaching activities. We are convinced that bringing all these skills together within an IHU will underpin and amplify existing synergies and thus progress and accelerate therapeutic innovation, medical science and the standard of patient care.”
As a European centre of excellence in the transplantation science, the Nantes IHU will combine first-rate clinical activity with a network of high-level applied and basic research laboratories.
In terms of clinical activity, Nantes University Hospital is one of Europe’s leading kidney transplant centres, with over 4,000 operations performed to date; it is the French number two for pancreas transplants and one of the country’s leading establishments for haematopoietic cell allogeneic transplants and heart and lung transplants.
On the research front, the IHU brings together three joint INSERM-University of Nantes research units and a number of other accredited INSERM, INRA, Oniris, French National Blood Agency and University of Nantes, units.
There is strong synergy between the proposed IHU’s components, with groups working on the transplantation of organs, cells, bone marrow and therapeutic genes. These clinicians and researchers have published more than 3,000 scientific articles over the last 15 years.
The IHU's medical and research staff are already working on joint programmes. The research performed by IHU labs and hospital departments covers specific clinical aspects, such as epidemiology, prevention, education, care delivery and ethics, the understanding and modulation of organ, cell and gene rejection mechanisms, the discovery and validation of biomarkers, the use of biomarkers in personalised medicine, via the development of diagnostic and/or prognostic tests and, lastly, the development of new therapeutic strategies and novel immunosuppressants.
The IHU’s researchers will rely on large- and small-animal facilities and other nationally accredited, technology platforms and skills centres, including a functional genomics platform, a rat transgenesis facility, a biotherapies and animal physiopathology centre, the INSERM Biotherapy Clinical Investigation Centre, the medical imaging facility within the Oniris Preclinical Research and Investigation Centre, the CIMNA immunomonitoring centre and the Gene and Cell Therapy Unit.
The IHU will also have links with the biotech companies in the local Atlanpole Biotherapies cluster. On the back of a spin-out strategy driven by Nantes University Hospital and Atlanpole Biotherapies, five biotech companies, TcLand Expression, Clean Cells, TcL Pharma, Cytune Pharma and In Cell Art and one e-healthcare ICT company IDBC/A2Com, have been founded around intellectual property generated by IHU clinicians and researchers.
These companies have joined the IHU project and offer opportunities for research exploitation and transfer into the clinic. Two other companies, Vivalis and the new start-up Affilogic have also joined the project.
The would-be IHU says its researchers are pushing back the frontiers of transplantation. This is particularly true for the use of animal-derived organs and cells, genetically modified cells and therapeutic genes in regenerative medicine, and the induction of immune tolerance, for example. Preclinical trials in xenotransplantation and in gene therapy for monogenic diseases, with dogs, genetically modified pigs and primates, are now being run in large animal facility in Nantes, said to be the only one of its kind in Europe.