SCK•CEN young researchers pave the way for new therapeutic applications


On Thursday 23 March, Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid visited the Life Sciences labs at SCK•CEN research centre, located in Mol. Princess Astrid seized the opportunity to find out more about technological and scientific progress made by the Centre’s young researchers when it comes to space and medicine. State-of-the-art research which paves the way for new promising medical applications.

The Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK•CEN) has been a pioneer in international research on the effects of low dose radiation on the human body and the environment for many years. In Belgium, medical applications – mainly imaging but also radiotherapy – are responsible for more than 95% of exposure to unnatural sources of radiation.

“Research conducted at SCK•CEN is essential in order to get a better understanding of the effects of exposure, mainly for foetuses and children, and to reduce the radiation dose absorbed by the patient to a minimum”, explains Hans Vanmarcke, head of the Life Sciences department at SCK•CEN and Chair of the UNSCEAR, a scientific committee of the United Nations. “Thanks to these advances, we can evolve towards a personalized medicine where each and every patient is treated based on his genetic profile and his sensitivity to radiation. Consequently, cancer treatments become more efficient while causing less side effects.”

These studies enable the development of new radiopharmaceuticals for better diagnosis and better cancer therapy but also better therapy for immune, cardiovascular and neurocognitive diseases. Research which also gains altitude and uses space as its field of exploration.



From left to right
Eric van Walle, Director-General SCK•CEN
HRH Princess Astrid
Derrick Gosselin, Chairman of the Board of Governors SCK•CEN
Martial Pardoen, Government Commissioner 

The astronaut is our laboratory technician

The daily dose of ionizing radiation is much higher in space than on earth and this has a direct impact on astronauts and bacteria in space. To be able to take up major challenges and to enable long-term space missions (for example to Mars), SCK•CEN researchers are working jointly with the European Space Agency and an international expert consortium on the development of a microbe-based waste recycling system called MELiSSA and able to produce oxygen, water and food in space.

For ten years, researchers of the Centre have been preparing a space experiment involving spirulina, an intriguing cyanobacterium capable of producing oxygen and food. In November, a device called ‘photobioreactor’ will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) to test the behavior of spirulina. The project will give us crucial information about oxygen production thanks to an active bacterial culture lasting several weeks in microgravity and space radiation conditions.

“It is a world first!”, claims Natalie Leys, head of the Microbiology department at SCK•CEN, enthusiastically. “Our space projects are regularly chosen for sending experimental packages in the ISS. All of the collected data allow us to better understand how the human body and bacteria function and to use the results for therapeutic and biotechnological applications on earth.”


Focus on three young researchers and their work

Space research also contributes to the scientific education program of the SCK•CEN Academy, offering teachers and students of high school and universities the opportunity to visit the labs and to carry out experiments there. “Thanks to this promising research and to our cutting-edge installations, we are welcoming many students and young researchers from all over the world every year”, explains Sarah Baatout, head of the Radiobiology department at SCK•CEN. “Our large expertise and broad knowledge of the subjects enable us to make progress both within science and medicine.”