Associate Professor Wiktor Szymanski (UMCG) is still struggling with his role as figurehead of HTRIC at this time when it is not yet clear what the exact course will be. Figureheads, set at the prow of a ship, look in the direction the ship is heading. They look hopeful, a bit handsome and presentable. But they don’t chart the course, he says.
With his heart and soul, Wiktor is a fundamental scientist at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the UMCG and the Stratingh Institute of Chemistry of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. His heart lies with the lab, with that one molecule, that one component, developing the concept. However, to actually achieve clinical applications, such as medicines or devices, HTRIC is desperately needed.
“In Groningen, we are really good at fundamental science. We have revolutionary ideas which can initiate change. But a lot of the time they get stuck at the proof of principle stage. We expect others to take over and bring it to market, which of course not always happens. HTRIC could become that bridge, translating a clinical problem into clinical solutions through research. This process takes time, and we must be careful in choosing our goals.”
For instance, Wiktor would never expect HTRIC to develop new medicines. Only big pharmaceutical companies have the means to do that, he explains. “We have to be realistic about this. However, we can think about how we can make sure existing medicines arrive exactly where needed inside the body.”
“HTRIC could become a bridge: translating a clinical problem into clinical solutions through research.”
If he would have to formulate a dream for HTRIC: a Centre of Excellence or a collection of highly experienced people with equipment and labs to match to translate the ideas we have. It takes specific skills to finally realize those ideas within clinical practice. Wiktor explains that these are skills that he certainly does not possess and which he frankly would preferably not develop because others are simply better for the job or more interested in working with these processes. Such as sifting through heaps of regulations, optimising an idea or a product, applying for patents, and finally commercialisation so that hospitals can purchase the application, medicine or device. It is a long time-consuming chain for an individual scientist who – like Wiktor – prefers to spend that valuable time in the lab. Therefore, the strength of HTRIC is the collaboration with other professionals within that chain.
He paints the ideal picture of what HTRIC could be with an example: suppose Wiktor develops a chemical compound that allows a surgeon to easily make a tumour visible during surgery. It turns out that this molecule attaches selectively to tumour cells. By that time HTRIC would work on making it suitable for the market: the findings are repeated under strictly controlled conditions, someone has to do the animal testing, and someone has to already think about a possible patent. This person needs to be well-paid and have a lab to carry it out. These should be professionals judged not by the number of publications but by their products, Wiktor states. They do not necessarily have to publish papers. “We are actively omitting the publish or perish pressure.” It can simply be compared to original research technicians. If possible, PhD students can join for a while to experience the continuation of the process, which is an excellent addition to this student’s CV.
“Companies are the first necessary sanity check for what scientists invent.”
The three chosen themes within HTRIC are well-chosen and suitable for being able to work this way, Wiktor believes. However, he also warns that, as far as he is concerned, a physical building is one of the prerequisites for HTRIC to succeed. It should not become merely a platform to exchange ideas, not just another institution. HTRIC should not be only a vehicle for what already exists. If you want to make a difference, it has to happen inside a building with people and laboratories. In the end, it will depend on the budget available and the financial reality in which HTRIC will operate. Moreover, HTRIC must be careful in choosing the problems to be solved. If you want HTRIC to succeed, you should choose a number of products from “Groningen” that will be realised and in use within clinical practice in five years.
Wiktor Szymanski perceives the companies that join HTRIC as the first users. They are the first necessary sanity check for what scientists invent. “Great idea, but you can never sell this”, they might say. Or vice versa: “This will work. I like it. Shall we apply for a grant together?” It’s essential to execute the sanity check at an early stage.
When is HTRIC a success for Wiktor? He doesn’t have to think twice about this: “When the first patient is injected with something we have developed in our lab. Primarily, as scientists, we do something simple. To say it bluntly, we develop white powder in a laboratory. But what if a doctor uses what you’ve developed to help someone else and improves that person’s quality of life or health through something that started as an idea in your head? Come on, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”