Collaboration Maastricht University and the province prove to be a great success

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April 13, 2022 † Seven years ago, Maastricht University and the province of Limburg jointly invested more than fifty million euros in the LINK program, within which the Merlin and M4i scientific institutes were established. Yesterday they made status; the bottom line, it turns out to be a scientific, commercial and regional success.

Collaboration Maastricht University and the province prove to be a great success
Researchers Jurica Bauer and Ian Anthony explain how the LINK program results in different training courses.

A long-term investment in science can help both a university and the region around it; that is the conclusion of Maastricht University and the province of Limburg. They merged seven years ago and jointly invested more than fifty million in the ‘Limburg invests in its knowledge economy’ (LINK) program. The core of the LINK program was the establishment of two new institutes; Merln, that with biomedical technology for regenerative medicine works, and M4i, a research institute that develops techniques and tools for molecular imaging.

As the program had a duration of seven years, the parties have recently made status. During a meeting in honor of this, Nick Bos, Vice-President of Maastricht University, outlined how LINK has shown that the ‘connection’ between the university, the province, the university hospital and the business community has been the decisive factor and benefits all parties. “The LINK initiative has expanded Maastricht University’s profile. The institutes connect the healthcare system with advanced technology. For example, the biomedical results of Merln and imaging of M4i the basis for the hospital of the future. ”

“In science, quantity says something about quality”

Professor Clemens van Blitterswijk also praised the success of the initiative. He came over from the University of Twente with his team in 2014 and was one of the founders of Merln – as well as Pamela Habibovic, first scientific director of Merln and now Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University. “I still remember standing on the big empty space that our offices would be built on,” Van Blitterswijk said, “wondering how we would ever fill it up. Now it’s too small.”

The LINK program spawned more than seven hundred scientific publications and 22 granted patents.

The numbers in the LINK program do not lie. While Merln still employed 41 people in 2015, the number of employees has grown to 120 by 2021. M4i grew from 37 to 59 employees at the same time. Since 2014, the institutes have also attracted more than 65 million euros in funding – much more than the 47 million euros that the university and the province set as a condition. In addition to organizational and financial success, there was also scientific and commercial success; between 2014 and 2021, the LINK program spawned more than seven hundred scientific publications and 22 granted patents.

“One can wonder if that quantity says anything about quality,” Van Blitterswijk reasoned, “but in science it is. The people we employ are funded by grants that we obtain in a competitive system. So that we can grow, says something. ” It is precisely this competition that is forcing the institutes to continue to develop at the same time, the professor said, looking to the future. “We can only compete if we keep getting better. We must always attract the best people. In addition, we must offer the developed technologies in practice; they must benefit patients. That is why we need to collaborate even more with MUMC and with commercial spin-offs. ”

Research within the LINK program

During the meeting, several researchers told about the research they have done within the LINK program. Danielle Baptista, for example, outlined that there is still a lack of science for a good model for the human lungs – something that is needed when, for example, studying the consequences of a coronary infection. The available in vitrohowever, models are too simple, and models of animal lungs are too different from human lungs.

However, Baptista and her co-researchers have succeeded in using polymer to mimic cells and parts of organs in such a way that at the micro level they are comparable to cells and parts of human lungs. They can then expose these models to various conditions in the laboratory. “With these models, we can study diseases and regenerations. In addition, we can combine these cells with other counterfeit cells from the human body and ultimately conduct research on the human body without using a human body, ”Baptista explained.

Brain tumor ‘fingerprint’

Other research under the banner of the LINK program looked at how to improve surgical removal of brain tumors. During such surgeries, some tissue from the tumor often remains, so another operation is necessary, explained researcher Eva Cuypers. In addition, it is now a time consuming process to check whether tumor tissue remains or not, which largely depends on the person performing the check. Cuypers has in his research looked for a new method that is less time consuming and subjective and ensures that another operation is required less frequently.

This research has resulted in a technique that immediately shows a surgeon what type of tumor it is during the removal of a brain tumor. In this way, the surgeon can work more specifically, and healthy brain tissue will also be accidentally removed during surgery less frequently, Cuypers outlined.

The identification of the tumor is possible because the surgeon’s electric cutting blade produces smoke when it touches the tumor tissue, which is immediately transferred to a computer. This computer analyzes the tissue ‘fingerprints’ and indicates within a few seconds what type of tumor it is. The software that analyzes the ‘fingerprint’ has been developed using machine learning based on tumors in hundreds of patients.

Effect of the LINK program on market and education

Because the value flag hangs high in the mast of the LINK program, efforts are made where possible to promote research results through spin-offs (companies from research institutions) to the market. It has happened four times so far. Therefore, Limburg now has a company that, based on a hair’s breadth, can determine whether someone has used drugs, medication, nicotine or coffee or has come into contact with chemical substances. For this, a kind of molecular photo camera developed within the M4i is used.

The research from the LINK program is also important for education. Not only do the departments train almost ten full-time equivalents, both places are also busy setting up their ‘own’ bachelor’s and master’s programs, explained Jurica Bauer (Merln) and Ian Anthony (M4i). Just as a football club has a youth academy to secure talent in the future, they want to educate people who can start working on the results of the research they are currently conducting. M4i therefore offers the master Imaging Engineering from September.

Regenerative medicine and entrepreneurship

Merln is also working on new training programs. “How can we be more successful in regenerative medicine if we do not educate our students better than we have trained ourselves?” Bauer told the audience. “Anyone who studies at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences also needs knowledge about technology, because it is of great importance in regenerative medicine.” Merln has therefore since 2017 offered the specialization ‘regenerative medicine’ within the research master Biomedical Sciences.

A bachelor’s degree is currently under development to educate students even better in regenerative medicine. There is a focus not only on physics, technology and regenerative medicine, but also on entrepreneurship. “We want to teach students to think about how they want to use their research results – how they want to get them to the patient.”

Also in the research area, the cake is not finished yet. For example, it was announced that Maastricht University and MUMC + will invest an additional eight million in the LINK program in the coming years.

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