• Date: July 23, 2020

For the sixth year running, the “la Caixa” Foundation, in collaboration with Caixa Capital Risc, will support the advancement of biomedical innovations towards society through CaixaImpulse. Since 2017, this health innovation programme is also supported by EIT Health, the network of best-in-class health innovators backed by the EU.

23 projects led by research centres across Spain and Portugal have been selected in this year’s two calls: 20 in the Validate programme (early stage projects) and 3 in Consolidate (more mature projects).

Each of the selected projects will receive financial backing—up to €100,000 for Validate projects, and up to €300,000 for each Consolidate project—as well as training and mentoring, to set them on track to enter the market.

In this year’s edition, 8 diagnostic innovations, 4 medical devices, and 11 therapeutic technologies have been selected. The programme continues to support solutions for a wide range of medical conditions, including neurological disorders, cancer, infectious diseases, rare diseases, and more. Over 60% of the project leaders this year are women.

CaixaImpulse Validate, a new cohort of health innovation launches

The seed funds and training offered by the CaixaImpulse programme have supported more than 102 innovative solutions that address some of the most urgent challenges in healthcare since the first edition back in 2015.

This new cohort of promising cutting-edge assets include a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease based on a gene that promote resistance to neurodegeneration, and a gene therapy to restore damaged nerves following a spinal cord injury.

Each of the 20 new CaixaImpulse projects offers a window of hope for patients and caregivers that are struggling to get the best diagnosis or treatment for many diverse conditions. The boost they get now may in the short or midterm improve the quality of life of thousands, if not millions, of people.

CaixaImpulse Consolidate, bridging the gap between seed funds and large investments of ready-for-market innovations

The second cohort of the more mature Consolidate projects features three known teams within the CaixaImpulse community. Two of the them were initially supported with a Validate grant and have continued their journey following a roadmap towards commercialisation. Now, this second impulse is paving the way for a robotic exoskeleton for neurorehabilitation after a stroke, liquid biopsy for cancer progression monitoring, and biocompatible patches for aortic tears.

Learn more about the CaixaImpulse Validate and Consolidate 2020 projects here:

CONSOLIDATE

ABLE REGAIN - Robotic exoskeleton for intensive neurorehabilitation aimed at stroke patients
Researcher: Alfons Carnicero. Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona

Every year 15 million people worldwide suffer a stroke. Stroke is the leading cause of motor disability in the United States and Europe: 50% of survivors leave the rehabilitation hospital in a wheelchair and 80% have mobility problems. Robotic exoskeletons can improve rehabilitation and restore independence in daily life. However, today's exoskeletons are costly, bulky and require the use of professional supervision. ABLE REGAIN is a solution designed to rehabilitate hemiplegic gait after a stroke in a continuous process of patient care, from the hospital to your home. It aims to provide a tool to increase the efficiency of rehabilitation, promoting recovery of motor function and quantifying its progress.

Studying circulating tumor cells to monitor cancer dynamics
Researcher: Lorena Diéguez. Iberian International Nanotechnology Laboratory. Portugal

Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are released from the primary tumor into the peripheral blood and are responsible for the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body (metastasis). The analysis of CTCs (liquid biopsy) allows continuous non-invasive monitoring of the cancer using a blood test. This project aims to test this microfluidic technology in a cohort of 70 cancer patients to assess the prognostic value of cell characterization in CTCs. In this way, oncologists would be provided with a tool that offers personalized information on the best therapeutic options for their patients.

Endovascular patch for aortic diseases
Researcher: Jordi Martorell. Chemical Institute of Sarrià. Barcelona

Aortic dissection (AD) is a life-threatening disease with an estimated worldwide incidence of 3-6/100,000 patients per year and mortality of up to 50%. Current AD treatments have mortality rates of up to 30% and medium-term complication rates of up to 60%, as they are originally designed for aortic aneurysms. Researchers have developed and patented a bioresorbable adhesive patch that mimics the mechanical properties of the artery and promotes its regeneration. This technology will improve patient quality of life and reduce surgeons' uncertainty during surgery, while lowering costs.

VALIDATE

Artificial intelligence for personalized medicine in neurological disorders
Researcher: Sandra Acosta. Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). Barcelona

Many patients with neurological disorders show resistance to drugs, which can vary considerably from one patient to another. This is what happens to people with Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy that manifests during childhood. Within this project, an artificial intelligence algorithm has been developed that will be used to examine available drug combinations and will establish which is the most effective in each specific patient.

Fighting prostate cancer via an "undruggable" target
Researcher: Marta Frigolé. IRB Barcelona

Castration-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC) is type of cancer that is currently incurable. The percentage of relapse of these patients is very high since they tend to develop resistance after the initial treatment, which is based on reducing the levels of androgens, such as testosterone, or preventing their function. In such cases, there is no viable treatment option to overcome resistance. The researchers have identified a series of molecules with therapeutic potential for this devastating disease that have been validated in the laboratory. Their goal now is to develop these molecules to generate a new class of drugs.

Tackling neuropathic pain with first-in-class dual agents
Researcher: Researcher: Eugènia Pujol. University of Barcelona - Fundació Bosch i Gimpera

Neuropathic pain (NP) is a severely debilitating disease that affects 7-8% of the European population. NP is caused by abnormal functioning of the somatosensory nervous system, responsible for sensations like touch and position. Only 40-60% of sufferers find partial relief with currently available drugs, which can also have serious side effects such as opioid dependence. With this project, the researchers aim to generate a new treatment based on a dual drug that reduces pain against certain stimuli.

Overcoming resistance to cancer treatment
Researcher: Maria-Rosa Sarrias. Center: Fundació Institut d'Investigació en Ciències de la Salut Germans Trias i Pujol (IGTP) Barcelona

Tumor-associated macrophages (TAM) are a type of immune cell that is tumor tolerant, and therefore interferes with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted immunotherapy treatments. This initiative aims to develop a new class of cancer treatments that act selectively against these cells. Its in vitro and in vivo assets have already been validated in a liver cancer model and work is currently underway to obtain other preclinical models that include other tumor types and combination therapies.

Managing swallowing disorders with artificial intelligence
Researcher: Alberto Martín. Salut Private Foundation of the Maresme Health Consortium. Barcelona

Oropharyngeal dysphagia (DO), or difficulty swallowing, is commonly seen in older adults and can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, aspiration pneumonia and decreased quality of life. Too often, OD is not recognized as the main cause of these complications because it is almost never evaluated or treated, although treatment is feasible with minimal interventions, such as adaptation of fluids and textures, nutritional supplementation, and oral hygiene. The researchers have developed an artificial intelligence system capable of assessing OD in real time that could help professionals identify the diagnosis and the most appropriate therapeutic strategies for each patient. The main objective is to continue validating this asset in real clinical practice and transfer this technology to hospitals to improve the results obtained in patients.

Innovative therapy for skin-directed psoriasis
Researcher: Serena Piticchio. University of Barcelona - Fundació Bosch i Gimpera

Psoriasis is a chronic and painful skin disease. Current treatments targeting immune cells are very effective but, in the long term, can have adverse side effects, including immunosuppression and cancer. The project proposes an innovative treatment that targets at a protein that is exclusively expressed in the keratinocytes of the skin and that could be as effective as current treatments while avoiding immunosuppressive effects. Therefore they are developing candidate drugs that can block the activity of this protein and that will be tested as a reliable treatment for psoriasis in future clinical trials.

Quick and easy-to-use bacterial diagnostic kit
Researcher: Roberto de la Rica. Institut d'Investigació Sanitària Illes Balears Foundation

BioPAPER is a diagnostic test capable of detecting bacteria in urine or sputum samples in less than 10 minutes. The tests consist of a single piece of filter paper that generates color spots in the presence of bacteria and only requires a smartphone to identify various pathogens. These nanoparticle-based biosensors could have a major impact in the healthcare setting, as they allow clinicians to personalize antibiotic treatment according to local antimicrobial resistance patterns.

Innovative target against metastasis in lung cancer
Researcher: María de la Fuente. Santiago de Compostela Health Research Institute Foundation

Lung cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death worldwide, with only 15% of patients surviving 5 years after diagnosis. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type and is virtually incurable to date. The researchers have identified a molecular receptor that is overexpressed in NSCLC patients and that could lead to the development of new therapies. Their recent research describes its role in the progression of cancer and metastasis. They now aim to develop antibodies targeting this receptor and with a view to evaluating the evaluation of cancer in each patient and improving the treatment of metastases.

Non-invasive localization of the seizure focus in epilepsy
Researcher: Adrià Tauste. Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). Barcelona

Epilepsy is a brain disorder suffered by more than 50 million people worldwide. Its diagnosis is based on the location of the epileptic focus, a process that often requires clinicians to visually review thousands of hours of electroencephalogram records for each patient. BrainFocus is an automated, personalized and easy-to-use diagnostic tool that overcomes this hurdle. It will allow doctors to determine the brain regions that are most prone to seizures with the goal of reducing diagnostic costs and increasing the success rate of drug-based therapies and surgery. The researchers will demonstrate the effectiveness of this technology in a broad cohort of patients and will compare BrainFocus' diagnostic results with the standard procedure.

A new target for the treatment of dementia
Researcher: Ana García Osta. Foundation for Applied Medical Research (FIMA / CIMA). Navarra

Several longitudinal studies have revealed that a third of people who died without dementia met the pathological criteria for Alzheimer's disease (AD), suggesting that certain members of the population are resistant to AD. Studying the brain of these people could open up a whole new world of possibilities for AD treatment options. This research team has identified a gene potentially responsible for this cognitive resilience. Through gene therapy, they have managed to completely restore cognitive deficits in mice. Now, they aim to determine the role of this gene in AD progression in humans.

Switch for therapeutic regulation of gene expression
Researcher: Puri Fortes. Foundation for Applied Medical Research (FIMA / CIMA). Navarre

Gene therapy is expected to transform the healthcare system in the coming years. However, there are still limitations that must be overcome before it can be implemented, including controlling the dose of the administered therapeutic gene. For example, a gene that has been identified as an excellent antitumor agent is highly toxic if it exceeds a certain level of expression. The researchers are developing a switch that will be placed in the therapeutic gene that will allow physicians to modulate its expression from the outside, and turn it on or off when necessary. This innovative technology is invisible to the immune system and independent of cell type, making it a safe asset for the treatment of various diseases.

Fast and reliable diagnostic malaria test
Researcher: Elena Lantero. Institut de Bioenginyeria de Catalunya. Barcelona

Despite being preventable and treatable, malaria threatens the lives of 3.2 billion people worldwide and causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. A significant part of the research community's efforts is focused on developing better diagnostic tests for fast and economically affordable field use. This project has designed an innovative solution based on small molecules called aptamers, which are faster and cheaper to produce than antibodies and do not require the use of laboratory animals. Initial results have indicated that the test detects four malaria-causing Plasmodium species.

Hydrogel patch for eye surgery
Researcher: Xavier Valldeperas. Fundació Institut d'Investigació en Ciències de la Salut Germans Trias i Pujol (IGTP). Badalona

Vitrectomy is a surgical procedure where part of the vitreous humor gel that fills the eye cavity is removed, for a number of therapeutic applications, such as retinal detachment. After this procedure, the cavity must be filled and sealed to prevent ocular collapse as well as to apply a tamponade on the retina. Inert gases and silicone oil currently used in retinal adhesion are prone to complications such as ocular hypertension, cataracts, toxicity, and the need for a second surgery. The researchers behind this project have designed a retinal patch based on a new non-toxic, biocompatible material, that is easy to implant and that will not require a second procedure to remove it.

Microwave to detect failures in implanted stents
Researcher: Carolina Gàlvez. Fundació Institut d'Investigació en Ciències de la Salut Germans Trias i Pujol (IGTP). Badalona

Stents (metal prostheses that allow blood circulation to be restored in vessels and arteries that have been obstructed or narrowed) are the most widely implanted device in medicine and are widely used for the treatment of vascular diseases. However, because vascular pathology is still present, stents can re-seal or rupture, causing severe complications for the patient. Diagnosis of these failures has low accuracy rates and ultimately requires surgical confirmation, added exposure to X-ray radiation, and hospital admission. A new monitoring system is being developed that uses microwaves to assess the status of the implanted stent in a non-invasive, quick and painless way. This new device eliminates the need for surgery and hospitalization, as well as reduces radiation exposure for both the patient and medical staff.

Portable biosensor for diagnosis and control of heart failure
Researcher: Inés Mendes Pinto. International Iberian Laboratory of Nanotechnology. Braga, Portugal

Heart failure (HF) affects at least 26 million people worldwide, who will need to frequently visit a hospital for a venous blood sample collection to control their condition. Detection of biomarkers in other available fluids and secretions would easily allow earlier diagnosis and more frequent monitoring of HF. The portable Heart Failure-Chip biosensor detects IC biomarkers in tears, and other readily available fluids and body secretions. This chip will improve the diagnosis and monitoring of the progression of the disease, which will allow personalized and timely therapeutic interventions.

Device to treat HPV-associated precancerous lesions
Researcher: Jesús Manuel Muñoz. Foundation for Biomedical Research at the University Hospital La Paz. Madrid

Up to 80% of sexually active people between the ages of 15 and 55 are affected by the human papilloma virus (HPV). In the case of women, some strains of this infection can evolve and become precancerous lesions in the anogenital area. Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is the standard treatment for these lesions, although it has certain limitations in terms of adequate light diffusion. The ClearPap device overcomes these limitations by applying light evenly throughout the cavity in order to activate the photosensitizing drug. In addition, ClearPap stimulates synergistic action with antiviral drugs, thereby increasing the immune response, and also mitigating side effects.

Gene therapy for spinal cord injuries
Researcher: Diana Machado. i3S - Institute of Research and Innovation in Health of the University of Porto - Associação. Portugal

Every year, between 250,000 and 500,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury worldwide. Patients can display a wide variety of devastating symptoms, such as loss of motor function, loss of bowel control, and the inability to regulate blood pressure. To date, there are no effective treatments, as damaged spinal nerves cannot regenerate. Now, a protein that enhances neuronal regeneration following injury to the sciatic nerve and spinal cord has been identified. The goal is to generate gene therapy to translate these findings to human spinal cord injuries.

Improving cancer immunotherapy
Researcher: Carles Galdeano. University of Barcelona - Fundació Bosch i Gimpera

Cancer immunotherapy is one of oncology's recent great successes. One of the most promising strategies is CAR-T cell therapy, which involves removing T lymphocytes (white blood cells) from the patient, genetically modifying them, and re-injecting them into the patient so that these modified lymphocytes specifically target tumor cells. This therapy has been used successfully to treat liquid tumors such as leukemias and lymphomas. However, these therapies have limitations due to their complex production and also regarding their efficacy in some types of cancers. The researchers are developing a new technology that will optimize the ex vivo expansion of CAR-T lymphocytes. With initial results demonstrating enhanced CAR-T lymphocyte potency, this technology could improve the ability of cells to attack tumors and therefore expand their use to other tumor types.

Improving liquid biopsy in lung cancer
Researcher: Inmaculada Ibáñez de Cáceres. Foundation for Biomedical Research at the University Hospital La Paz. Madrid

Liquid biopsy is an emerging method with the potential to become a versatile gold standard in cancer diagnosis and control. One obstacle that has so far impeded its implementation is the fact that potential biomarkers, such as exosomes, are difficult to analyze. In this initiative, a test capable of normalizing the content of exosomes from different origins has been developed to help in the diagnosis and prognosis of cancer. This technology will allow physicians to analyze robust biomarkers to stratify patients with lung disease and those at high risk of developing lung cancer. It will also make recommendations for additional clinical care when undergoing standard chemotherapy treatment.

New inhibitors of DNA damage repair for cancer therapy
Researcher: Jordi Minguillón. Research Institute of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Barcelona

Although many cancer treatments initially improve patient survival, the reality is that they eventually stop working due to tumor resistance. One of the reasons is that cancer cells have a high capacity to repair DNA damage. Therefore, these pathways have become a very promising therapeutic target against cancer. Researchers have identified several components of these pathways that could become candidates for new therapeutic targets. When inhibited, they will lead to the death of cancer cells. The aim is to identify new molecules with the aim of developing new drugs that increase the survival of patients with resistant tumors.

More programme highlights

July 22, 2020

Innovative targets to fight Parkinson’s

We spoke to three scientists who are investigating new therapeutic approaches that could potentially treat and even prevent this devastating disease in the future.

June 05, 2020

New technologies for safer transplants

In honour of World Transplant Day, we spoke to the innovators behind two CaixaImpulse projects that will enable safer transplants.

May 19, 2020

CaixaImpulse COVID-19 Express Call to bring six projects closer to society

Six projects have been selected to receive a total of €1.8 million in the CaixaImpulse COVID-19 Express Call to fast-track their progress towards the market and society.