Highway should help scientific findings to clinic

May 10, 2019

TU/e professor and cancer researcher Wilbert Zwart advocates building a ‘highway’ between the lab and the clinic.


Scientific discoveries find it difficult to find their way to the clinic. "We need to build a ‘highway’ between science and the clinic. With traffic on both sides, that is." That's the opinion of Wilbert Zwart, since last year endowed professor at Eindhoven University of Technology and researcher at Antoni van Leeuwenhoek/Netherlands Cancer Institute. Today he gave his inaugural lecture at TU/e.

In recent years the research team of Wilbert Zwart at Antoni van Leeuwenhoek have discovered several biomarkers: biological properties that can predict the course of a disease or susceptibility to drugs. For example, the team discovered a set of nine genes that, together as a biomarker, can predict how prostate cancer patients will fare and whether they will react to hormone therapy, which they are currently not receiving. With funding from Oncode, the researchers are currently working on a clinical trial.

Highly regarded

However, for many biomarkers the actual translation phase has run aground. Zwart: "Only a very small proportion of the biomarkers found are actually available for testing in the clinic. Unfortunately, in academia a discovery tends to be more highly regarded than an application. Moreover, it is not always easy to find money for validation studies. At the same time, scientists have a social responsibility to take this crucial step."


Zwart therefore advocates building a ‘highway’ between the lab and the clinic. "It's essential that this is a two-way street," says Zwart. "Scientific findings must reach the clinic more quickly, and clinical observations and discoveries must be investigated more quickly in the context of cancer biology. In the year 2000, for example, clinical researchers discovered a number of genes that are active in different subtypes of breast cancer. Some of these genes were rediscovered 10 years later in biological studies as being linked with breast cancer. There is much room for improvement her in terms of efficiency."

Happy coincidence

Physician and researcher therefore need to talk to each other even more. Zwart: "In addition to stimulating collaborations, I believe in serendipity: a happy coincidence. I think you can deliberately seek out such coincidences. Spontaneous, unplanned interactions are crucial: a strategically placed coffee machine, an informal drink, a meeting during a congress. One of the most successful breast cancer drugs would probably not have existed if not by chance. Tamoxifen is actually a failed morning-after pill."

Last year, Wilbert Zwart was appointed endowed professor of Functional Genomics in Oncology at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. Recently, he became chairman of the Translational Research Board of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

Source: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek/NKI

You can read Zwart's lecture here (only in Dutch).