2 November 2020

“Creativity loves a crisis”

As a boy, Philippe Lambin decorated his bedroom with posters of Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein—an early sign of the passion that catalysed his career. A radiation oncologist by training, Lambin does not limit his research to a single disease. His latest achievement: three European grants for his research on COVID-19.

 

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Philippe Lambin

“Of course, I’m very pleased with these grants. I believe it demonstrates the power of our unusual approach, which a lot of people were initially sceptical about. Everything was in place to come up with solutions quickly and write grants for a totally new disease we’d never heard about before.” Lambin is referring to his team at the Department of Precision Medicine, which he founded along with his colleagues in 2017. A ‘disease-agnostic’ department, its tools and expertise can be applied to many different diseases.

Disruptive research

“What makes us unique is the fact that we bring together biologists, artificial intelligence specialists, astrophysicists, lawyers, psychologists, mathematicians, bacteriologists, medical doctors and epidemiologists under one roof. The major societal challenges we face can’t be solved by one discipline or specialty alone. Disruptive research is what we need.” Lambin is clearly on the right track; this year alone, he has obtained six major research grants plus six PhD, worth over 4 million euro’s.

Lambin and his team focus on ‘convergence sciences,’ meaning that they operate at the intersection of medical sciences, biology and technology. Departmental research—split between an artificial intelligence unit, a wet lab for molecular biology and a clinical trial unit—revolves around cancer, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and viral diseases. “We focus on problems we can solve with the knowledge and tools we have. We’re very flexible, as it’s quite easy for us to sort of copy-paste the workflow and tools in order to apply them to other unmet clinical needs. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in obtaining grants for COVID-19.”

Philippe Lambin studied Medicine at UCLouvain (Belgium), specialised as a radiation oncologist and obtained his PhD in molecular biology in Paris. He was appointed professor of Radiation Oncology at Maastricht University in 2000 and served as the medical director of Maastro from 2000 to 2015. A pioneer in translational research, he founded the Department of Precision Medicine in 2017. He is co-author of over 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers, co-inventor on more than 20 patents and (co-)supervisor of upwards of 60 completed PhDs. He has received three prestigious grants from the European Research Council (one Advanced Grant and two Proof of Concept grants).

Coronavirus

Soon after the virus appeared in Europe, Lambin realised that it presented one of the largest healthcare crises of the century. “And I wasn’t the only one,” he says. “There was this mobilisation of scientists around the world. Everybody was obsessed with helping in one way or another. We were lucky enough to have access to the Asian data as early as February. So we created a website aimed at developing diagnostic and predictive models for COVID-19 management, and we wrote a few papers. This all happened without funding; we just thought it was important.”

The first COVID-19 project for which Lambin and his colleagues received funding involves a machine-learning model for risk assessment and triage of coronavirus patients. It helps doctors decide whether a patient should be sent home, hospitalised or admitted to intensive care. The second study focuses on AI software applied to imaging that identifies COVID-19 on CT scans. It not only improves the reliability of diagnoses, but also allows doctors to monitor the development of the disease. The third grant project aims to develop an oral vaccine containing living bacteria that produce antigens.

“All these projects have a common starting point, in that they are based on the concept of convergence sciences,” Lambin says. He draws attention to the ‘two translational gaps’ researchers have to cross: from the lab to clinical trials, and from scientific publication to routine care. “We used to think that once the thesis is defended, or the paper is published, most of the work is done. Well, it’s not. If you develop a tool that’s not actually used in patient care, the work is unfinished. What we want is to improve the lives of people with chronic diseases. So you need companies, and they need to be involved at an early stage.”

The new normal

Despite being at the forefront of COVID-19 research, Lambin does not believe in a quick fix. He compares it to a marathon. “There are many questions that need answering. If we create an effective vaccine, how long will it work for? And even if you have a vaccine that works, you’ll have to mass produce it and inject billions of people. And how many people want to get vaccinated? There are many challenges ahead, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to normal.”

And yet our new reality also offers opportunities, he says. For starters, he has discovered that he loves working from home: “I’m 200 percent more efficient.” Recent months have also bolstered awareness of the importance of closing the two translational gaps. More than ever, researchers are realising that what they do with public money has to be useful for the society. “And don’t forget that creativity loves a crisis. The Chinese word 危机—crisis—is made up of two characters: one meaning danger, the other opportunity.”

 

By: Jolien Linssen (text), Hugo Thomassen (photography)