Saarland University cooperates with leading Chinese genomics organization BGI

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are considered the new mass diseases. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, there were 46.8 million people with dementia worldwide in 2015, expected to reach 131.5 million in 2050.

The Chinese company BGI and Saarland University today announced a strategic partnership. “The goal is not only to explore the role of non-coding RNAs in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. We also aim for a more general understanding: What is the impact of small RNAs in aging? And how can we apply our knowledge on the non-coding RNAs to facilitate aging in a healthier manner?” explains Professor Andreas Keller, spokesman of Saarland University’s Center for Bioinformatics who also holds the Chair for Clinical Bioinformatics.

In the cooperation, BGI will provide the in-depth knowledge on high-throughput sequencing. “From a technical perspective, the devices developed by BGI are perfectly suited for this task, because they do not rely on amplification by polymerase chain reaction, the repeatedly replication of a focused DNA segment”, as Keller explains one of the advantages of the BGISEQ technology developed by the Chinese organization. While the sequencing is currently performed at BGI facilities, the partners are setting up a sequencing lab at Saarland University. Together, BGI and Saarland University will sequence the repertoire of non-coding RNAs in blood cells, serum, plasma and partially also in tissue samples of hundreds of patients and controls in Europe and China. The computational analyses of the hundreds of terabytes of data will be done using cutting-edge software and databases developed by Keller’s group, tailored for the research on non-coding RNA fragments. With “miRCarta” and “miRMaster”, Keller and his colleagues have already developed powerful solutions for non-coding RNA analytics that are used by researchers across the world. As a first instance, the researchers hope to provide new diagnostic tools for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Further, BGI and Saarland University will jointly explore the potential of deep learning approaches to interpret the complex molecular profiles and to combine them with other data, e.g. from imaging devices.

The partnership aligns perfectly with the strategy to explore non-coding RNAs in neurodegeneration and aging, according to Keller. Saarland University is already researching small non-coding RNAs (microRNAs) in Parkinson’s disease. In a joint project with Prof. Rejko Krüger from Luxembourg’s Centre for Systems Biomedicine, the international research team will spend over 2 million dollars to analyze miRNA profiles of Parkinson’s patients and controls, to follow up on the status of the patients over time and to develop new therapeutic strategies. Parkinson’s is also well known as affecting the American actor Michael J. Fox, who starred in the film “Back to the Future”. The Michael J. Fox Foundation, the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s disease research in the world, is supporting the Saarbrücken scientists in this endeavor. Further, Saarland University researchers also receive funding from the Michael J. Fox foundation to understand the influence of a Parkinson’s disease therapy on the gut microbiome of patients. This project, Keller points out, is also facilitated by the technical equipment of BGI. He and his colleagues are convinced that BGI’s technology will significantly strengthen the genetics research infrastructure of Saarland University.

Saarland University has a strong, world-leading research culture on microRNA and aging. BGI will work closely with Saarland scientists based on the BGISEQ platform and Big Data analysis for a better understanding of aging, and hopes to generate improved prognoses for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders. In addition, the collaboration will go broader and deeper on microRNA-associated fitness, precision drug development and patient care.

“Within this era of China and Germany shaping innovation together, BGI is happy to strengthen the innovative partnership with German universities, institutes, and companies, in order to build knowledge and value, and to promote scientific innovation and industry efficiency!” says BGI’s Chief Development Officer Ning Li.

Questions can be directed to:
Professor Andreas Keller
Chair for Clinical Bioinformatics
Saarland Informatics Campus E2.1
Saarland University
Tel .: +49 681 302 68611

Ms Bijing Gong
BGI Genomics

Gordon Bolduan
Competence Center Computer Science Saarland
Saarland Informatics Campus E1.7
Saarland University
Tel .: +49 681 302 70741

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