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The BNP Paribas Foundation Supports Students Delivering Innovation in Health

With a €150,000 donation, the BNP Paribas Foundation is co-financing an innovative teaching programme at Strasbourg’s Drug Discovery and Development Institute (IMS). Objectives: supporting equal opportunities for brilliant students, funding the discovery of new innovative therapies and helping to strengthen the pharmaceutical sector’s presence in Europe. 

A ground-breaking approach for the creation of new drugs at the University of Strasbourg

Within the University of Strasbourg, the Drug Discovery and Development Institute (IMS) consists of three branches that work in close synergy, covering all the dimensions necessary for the achievement of pharmaceutical innovation:

  • Research, undertaken by the Medalis research centre (12 laboratories and over 200 researchers)
  • Training, at the Euridis pharmaceutical management school
  • Innovation, supported by the Inedis pharmaceutical start-up incubator.

Each year, the institute launches the Drug Discovery and Development (DDD) Challenge, which acts as a showcase for the collaboration of its three branches. The competition is the only one of its kind in France and provides the opportunity for a pair of students at the end of their Masters courses to conduct a research project and jointly develop a solution to a genuine medical issue. The programme funds two trans-disciplinary doctorates (one in chemistry, the other in biology) on research themes with real potential to lead to the creation of a start-up and the provision of innovative therapies to patients. Supported by researchers, academic staff and industry players, whilst undertaking their research project, the PhD students also study the options for bringing their drugs into production, the potential market and the regulatory aspects.

A vital support to nurture the best student teams

Since the competition was established, the quality of the projects submitted and the calibre of the students have left no easy task for the expert jury responsible for deciding between the candidates. Each year, the selection of the winning pair is an arduous process. In light of this problem and in order to prevent promising projects from going without funding, the BNP Paribas Foundation has decided to increase the funds allocated to the programme. By means of a €150,000 donation, the foundation will co-fund a second pair of winning students alongside the institute.

Promoting equal opportunities for deserving students has been a crucial mission for our foundation for many years,” explains Isabelle Giordano, Head of Group Philanthropy and Managing Director of the BNP Paribas Foundation. “If a second pair of students presents a major project, we want to give them the means to follow it through, both to support the careers of these talented young researchers and for the patients who will benefit from their future therapy.

Signature of the donation agreement, in the presence of Isabelle Giordano, Head of Group Philanthropy and Managing Director of the BNP Paribas Foundation, and Sylviane Muller, director of the Strasbourg Drug Discovery and Development Institute and a researcher in immunology and therapeutic chemistry in Strasbourg.

2023 Laureates: Innovative therapies against cancer and dengue developed in Strasbourg

Several student teams presented their projects as part of the DDD Challenge 2023. The jury, composed of experts from academia and pharmaceutical companies, and chaired this year by Séverine Sigrist, President of Medtech Defymed, was able to assess the quality and potential for development of each project.

Among the candidates, two teams stood out and won the challenge: Charline Keller and Pedro Lopez, who are developing an innovative cancer therapy, and Khouloud Chtiba and Pualani Ateni, who are working on a new drug against Dengue.

The laureates supported by the BNP Paribas Foundation

Charline Keller (chemist in Master’s degree program in Analytical Sciences)
Pedro Lopez (biologist in Master’s degree program in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology)

Together, the two young researchers aim to tackle a particularly aggressive bone marrow cancer: multiple myeloma. Often diagnosed late, this cancer proves fatal in 50% of cases within 5 years after diagnosis. The challenge lies in the heterogeneity of this cancer, where the cells that compose it can be vastly different from each other. This complexity makes it difficult to identify therapies effective against all types of cancer cells.

Charline Keller proposes using a technique she practiced during her master’s program to better understand their differences:

We aim to isolate each cell derived from multiple myeloma to analyze the differential expression of certain problematic proteins. The protein named GSPT1 is involved in the proliferation of this cancer. Our project involves developing a tool that allows us to test treatments and understand their effects at the single-cell level,” says Pedro Lopez. With this approach, Pedro Lopez proposes designing a molecule capable of specifically destroying this overabundant protein: “The goal is to develop a CeLMOD, which stands for a molecule capable of specifically recognizing the GSPT1 protein and triggering its destruction by activating a cell’s natural elimination system. Thanks to the sorting of cancer cells performed by Charline, I can test the effectiveness of this treatment directly on samples from patients.” This approach also opens the possibility of choosing the most suitable therapy for the types of cancer cells analyzed on a case-by-case basis, for each patient.

For Pedro Lopez, this challenge is not just a thesis funding opportunity, “it’s a unique opportunity to work on a concrete research project leading to a therapy, as well as managing the entire process of bringing an innovation to market. I had already completed a 6-month internship at SATT Conectus (the University’s technology transfer office) to better understand how to transition from academic discovery to valuable innovation. This competition was perfectly aligned with my expectations.”

Beyond the impact for patients and students, the programme is part of the move to strengthen the pharmaceuticals sector’s presence in the heart of Europe. An issue of strategic independence that the BNP Paribas Foundation wishes to encourage: “The research emerging from this competition will ultimately lead to major medical advances, new drugs produced here, in Strasbourg. This is a great benefit for our region that must be preserved and supported.”