Mededeling van 16-07-2012

Openingstoespraak van de Minister op de conferentie 'Viruses of Microbes'

16 juli 2012, Koninklijke Militaire School

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It is a pleasure for me to welcome you here at this very special event, the “Viruses of Microbes” conference organized at the Royal Military Academy. Five days of forging bonds over academic research, discovery and innovation in a field that is important to our global society. Indeed, viruses seem to have played an essential role in the origin of life itself and are still very important for life on Earth today.


A key example of this is the search for new antibacterial to combat the threat of bacterial resistance. The worldwide emergence of “superbugs” and a dry antibiotic pipeline threaten modern society with a return to the pre-antibiotic era.

A recent estimate indicates that 400.000 people in Europe were infected with multidrug-resistant bacteria during 2007, with 25.000 attributable deaths. In hospitals in both the developed and the developing world, the majority of nosocomial are caused by a small group of pathogens. These so-called ESKAPE-bugs are increasingly prevalent and resistant to most of our antimicrobial agents, threatening patients’ lives and confronting society with huge socio-economic costs.


Phages – the viruses of bacteria – could help fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The 2011 EHEC epidemic, which killed 50 people in Germany, is still fresh in mind. Antibiotics were of questionable value. Theoretically, EHEC-specific bacteriophages could have controlled this epidemic and reduced mortality.


Such phages were recently isolated. But phages are very different from classical medicinal products.They are natural biological entities that coevolve with and control bacteria in the biosphere, including humans, which is the basis of sustainable phage therapy. Therefore, when trying to introduce traditional sustainable phage therapy in modern medicine, one is confronted with incompatibilities with current pharmaco-economic models.


For instant, the cost of conventional medicinal product development and marketing – millions of euros – necessitates strong intellectual property protection. But today, for natural phages, this protection is fragile. Furthermore, the timeframes for conventional medicinal product development and marketing – years – are not compatible with flexible, tailor-made and sustainable phage therapy content. Our pharmaceutical economic models need to be radically reshaped to cater for more sustainable approaches that are beneficial for human survival. More research is needed to determine the potential negative co-evolutionary consequences of unlimited phage therapy.


There are no biotechnological applications without exploring the diversity of microbial viruses and of their host cells. And, there is no understanding of virus-host interactions without fundamental structural insights. Multidisciplinary fundamental research is the key driver of innovation, also in this field. Therefore, I am enthusiastic about the fact that during this meeting, sessions on a variety of topics will be alternated each day. Moreover, organizers represent all major universities here in Belgium. It is indicative for the close collaborations which exist among scientists in this field, with industry, between academia and with branches within the Ministry of Defence.


What is the incentive for military to research viruses of microbes?


During the Second World War German and Soviet armies used phages against dysentery and gangrene. Today, the military are still conducting bacteriophage research. Examples are phage studies initiated at the Percy Military Hospital in Paris, the Walter Reed US Army Institute of Research and the Queen Astrid Military Hospital in Brussels.

Wounds from gunshot, shrapnel, as well as burns inflicted during combat operations frequently get infected with multidrug resistant bacteria. This complicates their healing and can lead to amputation of a limb, or even death, of the injured soldier. Therefore, we are pleased to initiate studies using bacteriophages and to help develop tools for managing wound infections, in civilian as well as in military settings.


However, most importantly for this meeting, this conference brings together well over 300 leading scientists in the field, spanning six continents. I hope you will have many inspiring interactions during the next few days and wish all of you success in your research.


Pieter De Crem

Minister of Defence


- - - The spoken word alone prevails - - -

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