How do you solve the shortage of cornea donors? How do you develop material for implants that the body will not reject? Five years ago, Maastricht University and four other parties founded the knowledge institute Chemelot InSciTe (Institute for Science and Technology). Exactly one year ago, the institute moved to Maastricht, close to MUMC+ and the university. Experts from various fields work here on those kinds of questions, with the ultimate goal of bringing a product to market. At the end of 2020, InSciTe’s biomedical programme was chosen by Interreg Europe as the best European example of developers of medical innovations. Observant shines light on two projects.
InSciTe’s biomedical programme focuses on affordably growing older with vitality within three themes: orthopaedics, cardiovascular and ophthalmology. Maastricht professor of ophthalmology Henny Beckers is leading two projects in the latter field. She is looking for a solution that improves the treatment of glaucoma patients. “Glaucoma is a disease that degenerates the optic nerve. This results in the gradual loss of vision. This is a very slow process and is only noticed when people’s sight becomes poorer. Unfortunately, it is too late then; damage to the field of vision cannot be repaired”.
It is the most common cause of irreversible blindness and there is still no treatment available. The only thing that can be done at the moment is to try and reduce intraocular pressure, the most important risk factor for glaucoma. “This can be done with medication, a laser, or – if that doesn’t work – by means of surgery.” This surgery involves the creation of a small opening in the eyeball. This provides a small artificial channel, through which a fluid (called aqueous humour) can flow across the eyeball.
Another option is inserting an artificial implant. In this case, patients are given a permanent drain, which transports the fluid from the eye. “But all of these interventions have complications. Often, the opening of the drain closes up because of the formation of scar tissue. Also, with an artificial drain, because you are introducing foreign material into the body, it can cause irritation and inflammation. This, in turn, may cause additional scar tissue, with further chances of blockages to the drain. The patient is then back to square one and that is why many patients (and ophthalmologists) prefer not to have this operation done.”
Beckers and her team are developing an implant made from a new material, which is more likely to be accepted by the body. It not only drains the fluid, but also regulates it. InSciTe helps them to actually bring this product onto the market. “For example, they brought us into contact with an American company that has already used the material that we want to use, among others for a cardiac stent (a small tube that can keep a vein open, ed.). This kind of collaboration speeds up the process tremendously. Their product has already been approved, and because we are choosing the same material, our prototype can be approved more quickly when the time comes. Think of five years before we can start testing on people, instead of ten years.”
The cornea as a window
Researcher Matthew Baker is co-project leader of another ophthalmology project. His team wants to do something about the shortage of corneas. When the cornea is damaged, either by illness or by an accident, there is no other option than a transplant. “The cornea can hardly regenerate. You have to see it as a kind of window. That is not easy to repair, it remains visible.”
There is a shortage of donors, which is why Baker and his team want to make cornea tissue with the aid of stem cells and human tissue. “At the moment, one donation helps one patient, we hope to use that cornea to make more tissue, so that ten or maybe twenty people can be helped.”
Baker’s team is the first in Europe that has managed to produce cornea cells outside the body, based on donor corneas. An important development, but that doesn’t mean that the solution will be available today or tomorrow. “Even though we are now using existing cornea cells as a basis, in order to completely solve the problem, we have to develop new tissue. This requires the designing of new smart materials that activate the self-healing capacity of the body. So, it will certainly take ten to twenty years before we can really start to apply it,” says Baker.
So, InSciTe is involved in innovations at an early stage. The institute focuses on (more or less) proven concepts and wants to develop those quicker in order to make them available to patients and get them onto the market. “We ask ourselves with every project proposal: is there a possibility to make a product?” says Filip Maes, project leader of the biomedical tracks. “Is there chance of success? Sometimes, it won’t work out, we will take that risk. This is what makes us different from commercial companies. They want to rule out that risk and want more data about the possible product, maybe even that you already have a prototype. But in order to be able to create that prototype, you need investments. We try to bridge that gap.”
The teams are always composed of people from various disciplines, not just scientists from the various universities, but for example also experts from DSM. “You shouldn’t underestimate how valuable that is,” says ophthalmologist Beckers. “A doctor looks at a problem differently than an engineer. I can tell you exactly what the patients need, they can say whether that is also technically possible.”
That could clash, says Baker, who is originally a chemist and also works for MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine. “In a way, we speak different languages. But because of InSciTe, we share a space together and we learn from each other.”
InSciTe encourages researchers to think more like entrepreneurs. They can take courses or receive assistance starting their own company. “Hundreds of people are trained every year,” says Baker. “That is great, certainly if you think that there are many people in their twenties working here, who are at the start of their careers. They are the ones who do the groundwork, who work together in this way, see the new possibilities.”
More about InSciTe
- Chemelot InSciTe was founded by Maastricht University, Maastricht UMC+, Eindhoven University of Technology and DSM, with support from the Province of Limburg.
- In addition to the biomedical branch, the institute also has a bio-based programme. This is where people develop new materials, which must ensure that the chemical industry becomes more sustainable. Things like the use of biomass such as grain waste instead of fossil fuels as a basis for making plastic.
- InSciTe has sixteen ongoing projects, with a total of 37 partners.
- In 2020, ophthalmologist Mor Dickman, who is also involved in the cornea project, received a Veni grant of 250 thousand euro from research financer NWO.
- At the end of 2020, InSciTe’s biomedical programme was chosen by Interreg Europe as the best European example of developers of medical innovations.