Science meets life

2 January 2017

The celebration of 20 years VIB was a success, in great part thanks to the contributions of the speakers of the afternoon. We had a short conversation with them about science, technology, business, people… and VIB.


Gene regulation, signal transduction and systems biology are the research topics of Erin O’Shea. She examined the mechanisms behind the circadian rhythm in cyanobacteria, but discovered also how cells make the most of a limited number of transcription factors through their dynamics. On September 1, 2016 Erin O’Shea became president of the HHMI.

As a member of the Institutional Advisory Board of VIB, you are well-placed to compare the two research institutes. Do you see strong differences between HHMI and VIB?
“Yes, and they are interesting ones. I see three big differences, and they really draw attention to VIB’s unique features. VIB not only strives for excellence in science, but also in technology transfer. HHMI focuses exclusively on excellent science.

The way in which VIB handles IP is also completely different from our strategy at HHMI. At VIB, all IP is handled by VIB’s own very pro-active tech transfer office. This strategy not only facilitates obtaining patents — it also generates more benefit by valorizing the outcomes of basic science. At HHMI, we defer IP to the collaborating universities who are less proactive and much less successful compared to VIB.

It’s precisely these two activities of the tech transfer office that make VIB so strong. One can make a very compelling argument that the tech transfer activities of VIB, even considered in the absence of VIB’s scientific achievements, has had an enormous positive impact on the economy of the region. That impact vastly exceeds the investment that the Flemish government has made over the course of VIB’s 20-year existence.
That argument ties in immediately to the final difference between HHMI and VIB — the funding source. HHMI is funded by a large endowment of US$18.2 billion, while VIB is dependent on envelope funding by the Flemish government. I hope that VIB directors can convince the Flemish government of the true extent of VIB’s success — not only in tech transfer, but also in generating excellent science and elevating the visibility of Flanders and Belgium in the international scientific world.”

Do you have specific advice for VIB in approaching the next 5 to 20 years?
“VIB should continue to focus on excellence in science, and that also includes basic science. I know this is a continuous process of push and pull, but one should realize the importance of basic science and its continued funding, even in times of economic constraints.

Other than that … honestly … I have resigned from many advisory boards. The reason I stay at the Institutional Advisory Board of VIB is because it is a first class operation that has really grown in success over the 10+ years that I have been involved. It continues to improve in quality and innovation. I learned so much from VIB — especially from its tech transfer aspect — that I want to remain associated with it!"


As co-founder of Tibotec and Virco, Rudi Pauwels laid the foundation for several approved HIV medicines that are currently saving thousands of lives. After Tibotec and Virco were sold to J&J, he went on a three-year sabbatical at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EFPL) in Switzerland. Inspired by the value of combining scientific and technological approaches to solve key diagnostic challenges, he founded Biocartis in 2007.

Can you give us some insights in your passion for technology?
“For me, technology is not important just because it is fascinating. It’s an enabler that leads to new ways to address challenges in medicine, whether they are therapeutic or diagnostic in nature. I have always begun with the clinical need and asked myself the question, ‘which technology could provide us with the best solution?’ Usually, the reverse strategy is used: someone first develops a piece of technology and only afterwards asks which clinical questions could be answered by this technology. The latter approach seldom leads to solutions that really respond to a need.”

What elements are important to consider when setting up a technology-based company?
“It is crucial for medical technology developers to envision the future
environment five to ten years from now. What will be the medical and societal needs? What kind of therapies
and diagnostic systems will be needed? Where and by whom will they be used? How much will it cost? My
approach has always been to familiarize myself with this future context very well — by reading a lot, by talking to people, by daring to step outside my own discipline and fields of expertise. From the perspective of this future vision, you look back and conceptualize what developments are needed to achieve that goal. It is only by combining developments from different fields that we can develop well-adapted, sustainable solutions.

An important element that I want to emphasize is the difference between product-centered thinking and platform- based thinking. Platform-based thinking is something that does not happen enough in the medical diagnostics industry. An example: if someone presents himself at the doctor’s office suffering from a tropical fever, the doctor wants to know whether the fever is caused by Zika, malaria, dengue or something else. There is a need for versatile automated molecular diagnostic systems that will answer more complex questions like these. We at Biocartis have sought from the very beginning to develop a multiplexed, platform-based system able to answer many diagnostic questions.”


The former head of neuroscience research teams at Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and Pfizer, Eric Karran became Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, a philanthropic organization, in 2012. He returned to pharma in December 2015 as Leader and Site Head of the Foundational Neuroscience Center at AbbVie in Cambridge, Boston.

To what extent is the academic community ready to collaborate with businesses?
“The academic side – and this is a generalization, there are exceptions – was mainly interested in producing
good publications and furthering knowledge in a relatively random fashion. Academic researchers allowed their curiosity to take them where it would, but the researchers were less interested in utility. It’s also a fact that this academic model has suffered some attrition over the past 20 years. Numerous studies have demonstrated that currently much of the biomedical academic research performed is hard to replicate in other labs. As a result, the solid foundations that existed 20 years ago do not appear to be as firm today. There are multitudes of reasons for that. It has to do with the complexity of biology and the research technologies used, but also with the pressure to publish under which academics have to perform and compete
these days. Another reason is the proliferation of journals so that it is possible, ultimately, to publish almost
anything. There are lots of issues at work there. What I see occurring is that a population of scientist are more
and more concerned with making sure that their science does translate to something that benefits society.
Whether they are in industry or in academia, good scientists are finding and collaborating with each other in a
much more productive way.”

We are celebrating VIB’s 20th birthday. Have you been collaborating with VIB?
“I would not call myself an expert on VIB, but I do know the nature of VIB, and I have some insights into how the organization functions and I’m also aware of how incredibly successful it has been. When in the UK, I have
advised institutes and researchers starting up research projects to learn from the VIB model.”

Do you have a message for VIB in its approach to the next 5 to 20 years?
“Having metrics on numbers of publications and/or patents does not always lead to what you really want to
achieve: answering the big biological questions. A paper in a very high quality journal is not necessarily the
same as discovering the answer to an important question. Many people who made incredible discoveries - and who have received Nobel prizes for these discoveries – did not always have the most impressive publication records. Taking a long- term perspective means that you give people room to create a field or a niche from scratch. Challenging, deep scientific questions take time to answer and scientists should be given the time they need to invest in them. The trick is, of course, to select those scientists that you can trust, provide them with long-term funding and be assured that your money is not wasted. In conclusion, my message would be to keep focusing on scientific excellence, but to try to have a long-term perspective at the same time."


In January 2009, the life of radio producer Krista Bracke was turned upside down. What seemed like a bad case of the flu turned out to be an aggressive Streptococcus pyogenes infection, commonly known as the ‘flesh-eating bacterium’. In just a few hours’ time, Krista’s body shut down. Septic shock caused multiple organ failures and cardiac arrests. For ten days, her life was hanging by a thread. Chances of survival were estimated at no higher than 5%. But against all odds, Krista pulled through. Today she bears the marks of a long and hard fight, living her life with two prosthetic legs, a reconstructed right hand, chronic lung damage and an immune disorder. Although Krista’s story starts off like a nightmare, her message is an optimistic one that brims with courage and an unrelenting lust for life.

Have you been following the advancements in science more closely since your diagnosis?
“Yes, I have read a lot of material. Most of all, my experiences made me more aware of how much important
research is being performed. The VIB research of Peter Vandenabeele (VIB-UGent) on cell death and sepsis,
for example, is very interesting to me. Realizing that septic shock is the most important cause of death on an Intensive Care Unit was already shocking and therefore it is reassuring to know that there are people who are trying to unravel the complex mechanisms.”

Do you think more people should know about the importance of basic research?
“That would certainly be a good thing, but I know it’s not easy. In the internet age, mainstream media have become very superficial, and scoring headlines is harder than ever. That’s a pity, because people would benefit from knowing more about the groundbreaking work that’s being done. Luckily, VIB spends a tremendous amount of effort on spreading objective, science-based information in an accessible way. The success of initiatives like the Biotech Day or Science on the Road is proof that there is real interest in biotechnology.”

Your optimism is remarkable, to say the least. Despite what happened, you have a strong belief in positive outcomes and progress.
“What other option is there? I simply don’t see the point in giving up. I won’t deny that it’s hard, though. Of course I feel sad sometimes. But in the end, you have to keep going. I believe that being happy with every little step forward is the key. When I managed to brush my teeth again, I thought: hey, if I can do this, I can probably use a fork as well. Little victories keep you moving forward. I like to call this ‘healthy positivism’: celebrating every little victory and of life.”

What would be your main message for VIB scientists?
“I would simply stress the importance of what they are doing. By understanding the mechanisms of life, they
can make a huge difference for people like you and me. Basic research has given me my life: if researchers
wouldn’t have worked hours and hours on developing good functioning artificial legs, I would be sitting in a
wheelchair for the rest of my days. If no scientist had made the effort of trying to reveal what can go wrong in
our immunology system, no specialist would have been able to diagnose me with PID. If sepsis would still be a
complete mystery to us, I would have died in the Intensive Care Unit. I am profoundly thankful that so many
researchers, scientists, professors and specialists spend day and night trying to keep people alive or to improve the quality of life of those who became seriously ill or had an accident. So I can only hope that  cientists will never lose faith in their mission and that they will keep receiving the support they need to give other people a future as well.

Eric Karran , Rudi Pauwels, Krista Bracke, Erin O'Shea, Johan Cardoen, Jo Bury

©VIB-Ine Dehandschutter