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An ambitious physicist, a “hard ass”

An ambitious physicist, a “hard ass”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Edmond Hustinx Prize 2016 goes to Bart van Grinsven

The exclamation ‘Eureka’ would be appropriate, having invented a small, portable tester that can be used to prevent bacterial outbreaks in hospitals. But physicist and assistant professor Bart van Grinsven is more like ‘mmm that’s funny’, as he quotes American writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov. Van Grinsven received the Edmond Hustinx Prize last Monday during the opening ceremony of the academic year. “As a scientist, I have a goal in mind, I’m very much a believer in science for society.”

“When we look at daily practice, we see that people only lock the stable door after the horse has bolted,” begins Bart van Grinsven (1983), assistant professor at the Maastricht Science Programme. “Take the dozens of campsite guests who became ill at a campsite in the Ardennes last spring. The site was evacuated and a search was set up to find the cause, among others in the water pipes. In the case of an MRSA outbreak in a hospital, whole departments go on lockdown, cultures are taken from patients and staff, after which it can take a day before there is a result. In the meantime there is an admission freeze.”
The MRSA bacterium, or staphylococcus aureus, is not a danger to healthy people, but it definitely is to sick or older people. They can even die from it. No wonder that there is a need for a fast and cheap way to detect harmful bacteria before there is an outbreak. “One could ask the cleaning team to carry out a daily check.”
Van Grinsven designed a handy prototype for that purpose. The gadget is the size of a phone; a green or red light immediately indicates whether or not a particular bacterium is present. Van Grinsven refers to his tester as an example of point of care, “because you can detect something on the spot”. Point-of-care testing is often referred to as 'bedside testing' in English: a laboratory test is carried out outside the lab. For instance, the measuring of glucose at the GP’s surgery. The result is available within a few seconds or minutes and the procedure is simple.
Point of care is also the name of a section of the Kennis-As project LiMe (Limburg Meet) where researchers from Maastricht University – including Van Grinsven – work together with Zuyd Hogeschool in the field of care technology.

Van Grinsven, born in Heerlen, realised when he was in grammar school that his “abilities were not in languages, geography or history. I was a science boy, I loved physics, mathematics and chemistry.” He then chose to study Physics at Hasselt University, where he completed his PhD in 2012. His discovery – the heat-transfer method in DNA – was awarded with the McKinsey Award (by consulting agency McKinsey and the FWO, the fund for scientific research in Belgium). “It is a device that can be used to detect small mutations in DNA.” It can also be used for other medically relevant measuring, such as the detection of hormones or the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. “It is always based on the same principle of the heat-transfer method. Yes, also with the bacteria tester.”

Van Grinsven is referred to as a “hard ass” within the Maastricht Science Programme, because he is critical and confronts students with the hard reality of science. But students are also grateful to him – anyone who wants to learn, is given every possible opportunity, even to participate in Van Grinsven’s research. He had an article published in ACS Sensors (American Chemical Society), a peer-reviewed journal in the field of chemistry and biology, about the bacteria tester a few weeks ago. A remarkable thing was that after the name of the first author – Van Grinsven – there are the names of three students. “If you choose to do a study like the Maastricht Science Programme and want to become a researcher, then you have to know how things work in practice. Yes, it is extremely hard work and you have to be able to deal with criticism, but when you work hard, you may also share in the success.”

 The Hustinx Prize of 15 thousand euro provides him with the opportunity of expanding a student project. “Together with our students, we managed to transform my gadget into a flexible ‘wire’ which could be used inside the human body, for example to detect dopamine in the intestine. Such an invention is extremely clever for such young people.”

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