Hailed as a scientific talent and innovator, cancer researcher Damya Laoui must keep looking for funding for her promising cancer vaccine. As a fundraiser, Yamina Krossa has stood up for her for four years. “We still need 1.2 million euros. Sometimes I dream of a wild benefactor’.
They could be family if you see them sitting next to each other, and it feels that way, say social entrepreneur Yamina Krossa and cancer researcher Damya Laoui. Their paths crossed five years ago thanks to an article in De Tijd. They have since put their shoulders together on a vaccine to prevent a relapse after cancer. Laoui in the VUB laboratories, Krossa as a fundraiser.
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The vaccine uses immune cells from the tumor itself to paralyze the cancer. The results in mice make one dream, but there is still a long way to go before the first humans are helped, with a constant search for funding. “Everything is welcome,” says Laoui. ‘The more money we have, the greater the success rate of the clinical trial.’
How did you meet?
Yamina Krossa: ‘I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 38. Because my breast reconstruction was not reimbursed, I organized a benefit. This resulted in the non-profit organization Benetiet, which we collected money to financially support women in the same situation. But thanks to our lobbying, the then Minister of Health Maggie De Block (Open VLD) changed the repayment modalities so that Benetiet could be closed.’
‘We still had €40,000 in cash and went looking for good cancer research to donate it to. And yes, there are no coincidences. That weekend I read in De Tijd that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had honored Damya as a top innovator. I immediately emailed her: ‘Can you do something about it?’
Damya Laoui: ‘I thought: one of my colleagues is making a good joke here.’
Crosa: ‘But it was real. In all my naivety, I thought that Damya could work for a year with 40,000 euros. Then it turned out that her research costs about 3,000 euros a week.’
Laoui: ‘Now it is even much more. The products we use already cost 10,000 euros per week. And then you haven’t bought any equipment yet, and you haven’t paid people yet’.
Crosa: ‘I was so disappointed. I asked Damya what would happen if she didn’t get that money together. “Then it stops,” she said. But her research is so promising and important. It was then that the plan was born to get involved in fundraising and turn the 40,000 euros into 400,000 euros.’
So does it stop? Is a recognized innovator not recommended?
Laoui: ‘Many people don’t realize that we spend a lot of time looking for money. I spend a quarter to half of my time applying for grants from the Foundation for Scientific Research, the Cancer Foundation, Kom op tegen Kanker, foreign institutions. It is frustrating. You research, you teach, you guide people and then you still have to write applications for research grants in the evenings and at weekends. Furthermore, you only have a 10 to 20 percent chance of getting such a grant. When Yamina suggested seeking funding, it was a relief. I got a breather’.
People don’t always understand what we do in basic research and don’t see the point of it. But it is precisely thanks to this kind of research that we can achieve something in the hospital.
Prof. Dr. Damya Laoui graduated as a bioengineer at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and did her postdoc at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. She is working on a vaccine against cancer at VUB and at the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology. In 2017, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named her one of the innovators under 35 in Europe. A year later, she was awarded Science Talent 2018 by New Scientist. In 2020, she won the Collen-Francqui prize.
Do you often receive gifts?
Laoui: ‘Sometimes people donate their inheritance to cancer research. Then we get a particle of it every now and then. But most of that money goes to doctors. People don’t always understand what we do in basic research and don’t see the point of it. But it is precisely thanks to this kind of research that we can also achieve something in the hospital.’
Can’t the pharmaceutical industry step in?
Laoui: ‘Pharmaceutical companies are often interested, but it is not a priority for them. We work with a personal therapy where we use cells from the patient himself. This is not profitable for the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, it will take a long time before the results are known. Pharmaceutical companies prefer to invest in something that they can make money on within two years.’
As a researcher, I spend a quarter to half of my time applying for grants.
Where is your research now?
Laoui: ‘In mice, the vaccine works extremely well against breast and lung cancer. We have now raised funds to get everything administratively in order for the next four years to start a clinical trial. The plan is to start with a study of lung cancer, because that is the easiest way to recruit patients. But such an investigation takes a long time. We will know relatively quickly whether the vaccine is safe, but we will have to wait years for its effectiveness. Maybe five to ten years’.
How does the vaccine work?
Laoui: ‘A tumor not only contains cancer cells, but also cells of the immune system, such as the dendritic cells that we work on. If someone has cancer and the tumor is removed, we isolate the good dendritic cells from it. Then we inject it into the body again’.
“These cells then migrate to all the lymph nodes in the body and generate soldiers (T cells) that can destroy the cancer cells. If there are metastases there that the doctors cannot yet detect, the soldiers destroy them. The dendritic cells also create a memory response. If the cancer comes back in five or ten years, an army of memory soldiers will be ready to attack immediately.”
Is it crucial?
Laoui: ‘With mice, yes. It is still possible that you will get a completely different type of tumor. But that is unlikely. Many tumors have the same genes that lead to cancer.’
Every time I go somewhere, I notice how present cancer is in society. Cancer spares no one, not even the rich.
How is the fundraising for your research going?
Crosa: ‘We are at 380,000 euros, so I am super happy. I have asked everyone in and outside my network to help. People have sold wafers, walked, cycled, organized concerts, you name it. And we have given many paid lectures.’
‘At the end of last year I thought for a moment it wasn’t going to work. There was corona and I got a bit discouraged because my network was crowded. But then we were invited to comedian Alex Agnew’s podcast. It has opened new doors. Suddenly the invitations and gifts started pouring in.’
‘Agnew also promised that he will donate €1 from every ticket on his tour to us. In 2018, he sold 150,000 tickets, but that was before corona. So it remains to be seen, but we will probably end up over 400,000 euros. Agnew is a hero.’
Yamina Krossa is interim general manager and partnership manager at Boost for Talents, an initiative from the King Baudouin Foundation that focuses on talented and motivated young people from socio-economically vulnerable backgrounds to lead them to a higher diploma.
Krossa recovered from breast cancer and in 2015 founded the non-profit organization Benetiet, which raised money to help women pay for breast reconstruction. Through her lobbying, the then Minister of Health Maggie De Block (Open VLD) changed the reimbursement modalities for breast reconstructions. Since 2018, Krossa has collected money for Laoui’s research with the VUB Yamina Krossa Fund. The plan is to raise at least 400,000 euros. But much more is actually needed.
More info: Yamina Krossa Foundation
What are you going to do with the 400,000 euros?
Laoui: “We need, among other things, a device to clean dendritic cells in the hospital. It costs around 300,000 euros. The rest of the money goes to operating resources.’
So 400,000 euros is not enough to start the clinical study?
Laoui: ‘No, we estimate that we still need around 1.2 million euros for this. Every time we do the math, we end up higher. Due to corona, the price of many things that we use in the laboratory has increased dramatically. Gloves are three times more expensive than before. Because of the indexation, we also have to pay our people more, but the stock markets are not rising. It’s a problem.’
Can politics or business not help?
Laoui: “You can only get the politicians to invest more in research. I don’t see why I should ask a politician to give more money to me and not to my colleagues who also do really good research. More money for science would be a good thing.’
Crosa: ‘We try to find wealthy entrepreneurs. Every time I go somewhere, I notice how present cancer is in society. Cancer spares no one, not even the rich. We have written to Marc Coucke and his wife, i.a. But in the meantime, Coucke invests in the wonderful operation of Luc Colemont’s non-profit organization Stop Bowel Cancer. Also very important, but we also want a Marc Coucke. Or a Mrs. Coucke.’ (laughs)
Laoui: ‘I’ve already seen CEOs say to me twice: ‘400,000 euros, that’s nothing, is it? I can give you that in a moment.’ I got their card and emailed them but I haven’t heard from them again.’
My big dream is that one day someone gets a vaccine after a cancer diagnosis that ensures they don’t relapse. I know what the fear of relapse is.
Crosa: ‘While now is really the time to donate. We are losing too many people to cancer. I know it’s a while before we start a clinical trial, but if we don’t raise enough money now and the research stops, nothing will happen’.
The time you spend in lectures cannot be used in the laboratory. Does it create tension?
Laoui: ‘Yamina only asks me for the most important thing, which involves a large sum of money. At the same time, the lectures give me energy. You sometimes get very naive questions from the audience, which can be very relevant. I do it about twice a month, and I try to stick to it.’
The 400,000 euros is almost there. So what?
Crosa: ‘Then we’ll have a party. My big dream is that one day someone gets a vaccine after a cancer diagnosis that ensures they don’t relapse. I know what the fear of relapse is. I had a very aggressive tumor. The doctors then said that the end of the story is if it comes back. It still grabs me by the throat every now and then. For me, this vaccine comes too late because you need the original tumor. It would be great if we could spare people that fear.’
Laoui: “Until then, it is super important to check yourself. If you get breast cancer early, you have a good chance of getting through it. But if you are late, and sometimes it can be late very quickly, you hardly have a chance’. ■