By looking closely at nature and how plants and animals develop materials, you can invent applications suitable for inside the body use. Together with her research group, Professor Marleen Kamperman develops materials for miscellaneous biomedical applications. She likes to copy nature’s ways. Such as sandcastle worms that miraculously craft their tube-shaped shelters from sand and shell fragments and produce their own glue to keep their home firmly together. How does their adhesive also work on wet surfaces, and which proteins ensure this? And even better: how do you imitate those proteins, so that surgeons can apply this adhesive in the operating theatre? After all, the human body is also a moist environment. She believes that the step to get material from the beach into the OR is what HTRIC’s strength should be. That is why chemist Marleen Kamperman is delighted to be one of the figureheads of HTRIC.
Marleen sees the opportunity for many possible cross-connections that can arise through HTRIC. She has been working in Groningen for three years. The involvement in HTRIC is an excellent opportunity for her to go more in-depth with both her own research group and with the doctors at the UMCG. She wants to start by inventorying what other research is currently being done and which helpful connections from the UMCG have been overlooked. Of course, her research on materials that can be put to beneficial use in the human body has always been situated at the borderline between clinical practice and the university, but she is certain people are working on other developments that deserve this connection too.
To be honest: when Erik van der Giessen asked her to be part of HTRIC’s driving force, it was the perfect opportunity for Marleen, both personally and professionally, to get to know people after working many years in Wageningen. Of the three years she has lived in Groningen, she has mainly spent at home and being online due to COVID. At the university, she now knows perfectly how the wheels spin. However, HTRIC offers her the opportunity to get acquainted with others.
“You need others to tell you whether your idea will work in practice.”
Within HTRIC, Marleen works together with Max Witjes within the theme Replacement and Improvement in the Human Body. She perceives this collaboration as a manner of progress. Her world consists more of fundamental research and education, than startups. She explains that her research on adhesives receives added value when someone joins who knows whether it is biocompatible or not. You need others who can tell you whether the human body will accept the material and not provoke any allergic reaction. Or someone who says that the developed material is much too stiff because the skin is much softer. And very practical: a surgeon cannot wait for ten minutes during an operation for an adhesive to harden.
She looks forward to these kinds of practical accessible conversations. Those semi-accidental encounters might lead to coming up with some new ideas. A question she recently received: Can an adhesive, developed by her, also be used for easier drug delivery in the stomach? No idea yet, but there are plenty of options. The conversations with surgeons about what they need are very beneficial. Such as talking to Max Witjes about glueing jawbones, for example. Then the brainstorming will begin immediately: we might have something for that.
You can easily make contact with other professionals without having to set up a vehicle such as HTRIC. You might say that an email is sent in no time. Despite that, Marleen believes it can be done even better. Many contacts are not approached yet. Moreover, the issues within medical technology are becoming increasingly complex. Research is done by large groups of people, so it is essential to try to keep the lines of contact short. Therefore, it would be great if HTRIC has a physical space and that it does not only stay a virtual institute.
“We as scientists can learn from cooperations with companies.”
She imagines the institute to have a remarkable and energetic appearance when asked about her dream for HTRIC. Where students come and go, people from clinical practice, education, industry and scientists. Students who understand that the research they do is about real problems to which they can contribute in practice. Businesses that understand and see the added value and clearly state what is needed in terms of regulations and legislation. Kamperman envisions a place where different groups come together to solve complex problems that we may not even know about yet. But also: develop a system to generate funds to bring those ideas further.
Businesses will surely find projects within HTRIC, that may be of interest to them. However, Marleen explains that one of our main tasks is of course educating people: the employees businesses need. By working together with companies, educational institutions can better train students. That aspect should become more important.
Businesses can learn a lot from science and vice versa. This should be even more encouraged than now. A PhD programme takes a great number of years. A company usually quickly wants to know whether something works or not. About this Marleen says: “Perhaps we, as scientists, should sometimes be quicker to say that something is not working. Rather say alright, let’s try something different”.
There are also some other challenges: sometimes businesses can’t share all of their sensitive information; and who will ultimately own the product? This is all part of the process, and HTRIC can play a role in streamlining this.
HTRIC’s starting point, from going to curiosity to search for solutions to eventually create an impact is very appropriate for biomedical applications. It all begins with a mussel that anchors to a rock or immensely strong spider silk. The whole process from finding an interesting material in nature, then translating this into a producible equivalent and ensuring, via HTRIC, that businesses will produce it to be used for skin transplantations: If we can make this kind of impact, that would be amazing.