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'Changing the world does not happen in the lab only'

18-03-2022

In the new issue of 'Economie werkt', the magazine of Provincie Vlaams-Brabant, B-PHOT professor Heidi Ottevaere and Antleron CEO Jan Schrooten discuss a shared vision on end-to-end collaboration in making personalized medicine a reality for all and the need for a strong, life science-technology cross-over ecosystem.

Read the English translation of the article:

The medicine of tomorrow appeals to the imagination. With labs the size of a chip, organs rolling out of the printer, and personalized therapies and medicines tailored to each patient. Due to the growing biological insights and innovations in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors and big data, much more is possible in the so-called life sciences. But that is not possible without cooperation and cross-pollination. A conversation with Antleron CEO Jan Schrooten and professor Heidi Ottevaere (VUB) of the research group Brussels Photonics (B-PHOT) in the light of the fourth Life-on-Chip conference.

If you ask professor Heidi Ottevaere about her research group B-PHOT at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, she cannot hide her enthusiasm. Everything revolves around photonics, a technology that focuses on generating, manipulating and detecting light. The research group uses light, among other things, as an optical detection technique in medical applications using a lab-on-chip. That's what the name says: a laboratory on a chip from a few millimetres to a few centimetres in size.

Prof. Dr. Ir. Heidi Ottevaere: "A lab-on-chip needs very small amounts of liquid to perform an analysis. We are talking about microfluidics. The detection of the changes in the sample is done with the help of photonics. A lab-on-chip is especially important in medical applications where you often cannot use litres of liquid. In addition, light technology helps to detect a condition at an early stage. For example, we work on detecting Alzheimer's disease. Thanks to the lab-on-chip technology and sensitive optical detection methods, this can be done at an earlier stage than is still usual today."

How does your research make personalized medicine possible?

Heidi Ottevaere: "A lab-on-chip is relatively cheap and very portable. For example, you can continuously monitor the patient so that the doctor can adjust the therapy very quickly if necessary. A tailor-made treatment. You can take this one step further with an organ-on-chip. By culturing cells on a chip, we create an artificial organ in chip format. As a test platform for different medications or therapies for that patient. This leads to better medicine and makes it possible to greatly reduce experiments on animals."

How important is a collaboration with other high-tech research groups and companies for you?

Heidi Ottevaere: "Very important, because many different domains come together in a lab-on-chip. Photonics alone will not get you there, you also need micro- and nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, data and so on. All that expertise and innovation come together in the health and biotech sector, that's the beauty of it."

Bringing together expertise to achieve personalized healthcare, that is the mission of the Leuven company Antleron.

Dr Jan Schrooten: "That's right. As a researcher and later research manager at KU Leuven, I focused on collaboration in the 1990s to link the potential of technology to biology and medical knowledge, and thus bring it closer to the patient. To continue the mission of sustainable healthcare, I set up Antleron, as a company that integrates all that innovation in technology such as chips, AI, data, 3D printing and imaging for medical applications. This requires cooperation from many people: from the technicians to the scientists, the doctors, the entrepreneurs, the researchers. They have to learn to speak the same language, often literally. Seven years ago, with the support of the province of Flemish Brabant, I brought together players from Flanders and the Netherlands for the first time around personalized and regenerative medicine. The start of what is now the annual Life-on-Chip conference."

The possibilities seem endless. Soon we will simply print our new liver ourselves.

Jan Schrooten: "One of the options is to use a cultured organ instead of a transplanted lung or liver. A spare part with your own biology, so to speak. But you can't just do that in a lab. You need complex technology and a lot of data for that. Those pieces of the puzzle are within reach, but you also have to put the puzzle right. And given the complexity, that is only possible with cooperation."

We seem to be facing a medical revolution. When will we, as patients, notice something of this?

Heidi Ottevaere: "A lot of research has been done in the past ten or twenty years, of which very little has really filtered through to our hospitals. I think that we are gradually seeing a turnaround and that more and more people are also open to new technologies. I think you will see a lot of change in the next ten years."

But is it realistic for every patient to receive a tailor-made medicine or therapy? Isn't that priceless?

Heidi Ottevaere: "Medicine does not necessarily have to become more expensive. Technological solutions evolve with it. A 3D printer, for example, is not the most expensive technology."

Jan Schrooten: "The largest costs of our medicine and healthcare are borne by the government. The government is increasingly looking at what you cost as a patient over your entire life and less at the price of one treatment. If you have to take a medicine that costs barely a cent every day for thirty years, it costs a lot. Especially if this does not help you completely, so that you cannot do your job for 100%. The cost to society can then be greater than if you receive a one-time gene therapy that may cost 10,000 euros, but which will solve your health problem for a long time. That way the investment pays off."

"So better, personalized medicine can help make our healthcare more sustainable. But that requires a completely different way of thinking, with different revenue models. For example, the large companies in the pharmaceutical industry prefer that we all take the same medication, because that is a revenue model for them that they know well. But in many cases, tailor-made therapy simply works much better for the patient."

How important is the Life-on-Chip conference and platforms such as Smart Hub Vlaams-Brabant and flanders.healthTech for the future of our medicine?

Jan Schrooten: "From the technicians to the creatives in labs, from the doctors to the entrepreneurs who valorize innovations: they are all people. And if you don't put them together, nothing will happen. Because what do you benefit when researchers from the most famous lab don't share their discoveries? You need partnerships, networks and ecosystems so that a good idea eventually goes to market. Only then will the results of the research and the invested resources flow back to society."

Heidi Ottevaere: "We don't do research to see it disappear into the closet. In the past, researchers hardly ever left their lab. They published their findings and that was it for them. That time is thankfully over. As a professor, you are no longer only evaluated on the number of papers you write, but also on the number of research projects for which you can obtain funding and how they are valorised. That is why it is important that we can also count on a network of colleagues, companies, hospitals and the life science industry. We want to hear from them about their needs and how our research can help them. That is why a conference like Life-on-Chip is important. Because we need others and they need us."

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