Clemens van Blitterswijk Clemens van Blitterswijk Sacha Ruland

Leading by example

In Body
Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Wednesday, 16 April 2014 08:51

Clemens van Blitterswijk’s tissue regeneration research group comes to Maastricht

“I’ve spent most of my career with one foot in academia and one in the business world. And I want to do both of them well.” Clemens van Blitterswijk is indeed ambitious – not to mention successful – in both domains. He has received numerous awards, is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and was recently named the most entrepreneurial scientist in the country. His research group, which specialises in bone and cartilage repair, is among the best in the world. This year, the group will be relocating to Maastricht University as the MERLN Institutefor Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine.

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“My mentor Klaas de Groot, a professor of biomaterials, laid the foundations for this research group more than 30 years ago”, Van Blitterswijk concludes, having spent an enthusiastic hour and a half talking about the world of biomaterials and tissue regeneration. “He’s our patriarch.”
Van Blitterswijk studied cell biology at Leiden University, obtaining his PhD in the early 1980s for his work on ceramic ossicles, small bones in the middle ear. De Groot was on the assessment committee. “He’s had a big impact on me, not only as a scientist but also as an entrepreneur. I’m quite stubborn, but I follow his advice. He has a unique personality: incredibly accomplished without being egotistical.”

High adrenaline level

In the late 1960s de Groot was one of dozens of researchers worldwide working with biomaterials. Their work laid the foundations for today’s hip replacements and dental implants. He was also a progressive man who, together with Van Blitterswijk’s supervisor, Professor Grote, founded his own ceramics company back when this was highly unusual for scientists. “They set an example for me”, says Van Blitterswijk. “Klaas, another colleague and I set up our own company, called HC Implants. That was my first serious company, but not the last. IsoTis was originally founded in collaboration with Leiden University, but later became a successful independent company with 150 employees and a listing on the stock exchange.”

It was an exciting time, and a new world of bankers and venture capitalists opened up to him. “It’s great; you work with a very high level of adrenaline. But around 2002 I noticed that I was starting to cannibalise my scientific knowledge and I had to make a choice. I came back to academia and set up a research group in Twente, where I’ve been a part-time professor since 1996.” IsoTis has since been sold to an American company, but his present lab continues to pursue this line of research.

Prizes galore

At once delighted and proud, Van Blitterswijk reports that one of his staff, Lorenzo Moroni, has just won the Jean Leray Award, a prestigious prize awarded by the European Society for Biomaterials to scientists under the age of 40. They also award a career prize: the George Winter Award, previously won by both Klaas de Groot and Van Blitterswijk himself. “I won the Jean Leray in 1987, last year another one of my staff did, Pamela Habibovic, and now Lorenzo has won it too. I don’t mean to brag, but this is very special; it says something about the quality of our research group. The previous winners are now all world leaders in their fields. And we’ve come full circle: Klaas de Groot was the man of the first hour, I was second and now I’m passing on the baton to Pamela and Jan de Boer. They’ll keep on pushing the boundaries with their own groups in Maastricht. Now we’re going for that third George Winter Award.”

Looking back

Materials research has taken off over the last 50 years. “In the 1960s it was already considered a win if materials weren’t encapsulated or didn’t work their way out like a splinter from your finger. Later materials were so friendly the body accepted and grew around them. For instance, in the 1980s Klaas developed synthetic biomaterial: a ceramic that, like bone, is made of calcium phosphate. By applying a thin layer of the synthetic bone as a plasma spray to an implant, the implant could grow together in the body with the real bone. There must be millions of people walking around now with a plasma-sprayed artificial hip.”

The late 1980s saw the advent of bioactive materials; living materials that interact with the body. IsoTis arose from the idea that live bone tissue could be grown on a ceramic plate using stem cells from the patient’s leg. “Culturing cells was no problem, but getting them to do what we wanted in the body – making bone – proved to be more difficult.”

Eureka

The quest to find out how stem cells can be made to produce bone led to renewed experimentation with materials. Materiomics developed as one of the two research lines of his lab and a spin-off, Materiomics BV, has been launched. “In 2004 we discovered – quite by accident – that the special surface of certain materials can prompt cells in the body to make bone. That was a Eureka moment. The surface structure acts as a sort of Braille that says to the cell, ‘make bone’. We knew it worked, but we didn’t know how. In 2010 we were able to cultivate surface structures in a seed tray that made the cells produce bone. Now we’re trying to show that the principle of these ‘instructive scaffolds’ works broadly; not only for bone replacements, but also for things like breast implants or vascular prosthesis.”

The second research line revolves around the cultivation of complex tissues. Twenty years ago tissue engineers could make simple tissues with a single cell type, such as cartilage or surface skin. “But most tissues in our bodies are complex; they have blood vessels and nerve tissue. We’re now trying to grow several tissues simultaneously. Together with researchers at Harvard we were the first group to cultivate blood vessels with muscle tissue, and five years later we did this with bone tissue too. If you ask our team what they’re most proud of, it’s that we’ve been around so long and yet are still doing such novel things. We’re still leading the charge.”

Venture capital

The arrival of the tissue regeneration research group confirms the appeal of the idea behind the Kennis-As Limburg investment programme for researchers. The MERLN Institute will help to shape the Inscite institute, and there are opportunities for collaboration with both the Health Campus and the Chemelot Campus. “With an academic hospital nearby, DSM and the ambitions of the Province as set out in Kennis-As, this is an ideal environment for us. And it provides my staff with new opportunities for expansion and career prospects. We’re an entrepreneurial group and it’s important to us that our technology ultimately reaches patients, be it through our own spin-offs or other companies.”

Enterprising professor

Van Blitterswijk will dedicate half his time to his time professorial chair, and the remaining half to his position as director of the LSP Health Economics Fund (LSP HEF) in Amsterdam. “This fund invests solely in technologies that help to curb rising healthcare costs. Which is important, otherwise healthcare will become unaffordable. This role brings everything together for me: I’ve started companies myself and developed ideas with my research group. LSP HEF now gives me the chance to fund other people’s ideas and contribute to the quality of healthcare. We’ve raised €112 million so far, which we can use for 15 investments.”

Amsterdam, Maastricht – where will he live? “At the moment I live on a beautiful farm in Friesland, where my wife and one of my two daughters breed horses. If we can find as nice a place in Limburg we’ll move, because the countryside here is equally magnificent. I can see it happening – but until then I’ll be spending a lot of time travelling and in hotels.”

Clemens van Blitterswijk (1957), professor of Tissue Engineering, is one of the most frequently cited Dutch scientists in the field of materials science. He is author or co-author of around 386 peer-reviewed journal articles, and inventor or co-inventor on over 100 patent applications. Van Blitterswijk has received a number of prestigious international awards and was elected to the KNAW in 2012. He combines his professorship with his role as Founding Partner of the LSP Health Economics Fund. 

Click here for a video on the research of the MERLN Institute.
You can find more information about the MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine at http://merln.maastrichtuniversity.nl





 

 

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