For those studying Electrical Engineering, a career in an academic hospital might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, this is exactly the direction Berend van Meer went in during his studies at the Technical University in Delft (TUD) and is the area in which he has continued to work after graduating: “I am very interested in the interface between engineering and medicine. Being able to work in the LUMC as an engineer feels like the ideal mix between technology and health care.”
But Berend’s choice to work in a health care institution did not come out of the blue: “I used to want to become a medical doctor, but I was not as interested in the clinical side of being one. But I have always had a major interest in diseases, their workings and mechanisms.” In the end, a guest lecture on Organ-on-Chip proved to be decisive: “I was really impressed with the lecture of Professor Ronald Dekker about this concept at the TU Delft.”
Professors Ronald Dekker (TUD) and Christine Mummery (LUMC) were looking for someone who was willing to rotate between the LUMC and Delft. Berend was more than willing to adhere to this particular whish: “And once I graduated I realized there was one person I needed to get in touch with. After contacting Professor Mummery about job opportunities at the LUMC, I quickly received word that I could continue to do research on Organ-on-Chip as a PhD candidate.”
Meanwhile, Berend has finished his PhD research and is now a postdoctoral researcher in Organ-on-Chip. But what exactly does this mean? “With Organ-on-Chips we create a small peace of tissue that we place on a ‘smarter’ surface than, for instance, a standard plastic surface. As it were, we check if cells feel better on this surface. We then replicate functions of the human body in the chip to measure in vitro (outside of the human body) how cells respond to certain treatments and medication.”
Specifically, Berend is focused on researching heart muscle cells made from stem cells. “It is really cool to see how we can grow these cells ourselves and that we can actually see them contracting like real heart muscle cells would in the chip we created.” But you can also grow other cells with Organ-on-Chips, such as liver and kidney cells, or what to think of the blood-brain barrier?
An important added value of this type of research is that it can be used as a replacement for animal experimentation. Moreover, for many diseases it can be a better research method than animal experimentation.
Furthermore, this type of research has a personal side to it. Organ-on-Chips is research in which stem cells form the starting position for the cells that have to be grown. In the past, these cells were obtained mostly from embryo’s, which gave rise to some controversial concerns, but this is no longer necessary: “Nowadays, we are able to conduct research with so called ‘pluripotent stem cells’ for Organ-on-Chip methods.” This means that stem cells can be grown from, for instance, urine or skin of adults. “How weird is it that you can urinate in a tub and that you can have fully functioning heart muscle cells two months later that are made entirely of your own genetic building blocks?”
It is the preview of personalized treatments. After all, everyone reacts differently to certain diseases and conditions, and that is why different treatments for the same conditions are essential: “For instance, you can research bits of cancers of a patient and experiment with different treatments to determine which treatment is the most effective and then decide on the most suitable treatment for a patient.” But Berend says all of this with some caution: “These are all options for the long term and my professor always emphasizes that I certainly must not speculate when we will be able to implement this in practice”, Berend says with a smile.
Whatever the future of personalized treatments and Organ-on-Chips might hold, one thing is for sure, we will reach future goals by collaborating multidisciplinary: “That, to me, is what makes working at the LUMC so special. There are so many different disciplines and specialists collaborating in the medical center. I have very easy access to medical doctors, who are also closely involved in our research and try to help us move forward, and vice versa.”
And that collaborative nature ensures that you learn to speak each other’s language: “It is for this exact reason that I, as an engineer, can work on medical research. I have knowledge of physics that biologists might lack, and they have knowledge of biology that I might be missing. During a PhD project at the LUMC, the organization makes sure you get educated in other disciplines. This way, the LUMC connects multiple specialists and subjects to create multidisciplinary health care and academic research innovations. The LUMC, thus, is an essential building block for health care and research.”
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