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The Warsaw Voice » The Polish Science Voice » November 25, 2011
The Polish Science Voice
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Thinking big
November 25, 2011   
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Prof. Sławomir Majewski, vice-rector for science and international relations at the Medical University of Warsaw, talks to Karolina Olszewska.

Where did the idea for the Centre for Preclinical Research and Technology (CePT) come from?

The initiative came from the academic community, including the Ochota Campus, which, apart from the Medical University of Warsaw, is home to a number of institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) as well as the biology and chemistry faculties of the University of Warsaw. The Ochota Campus has for years fostered science meeting top international standards. The academics came to the conclusion that if they are provided with infrastructure to encourage joint projects, successful research will become far more likely than if each institute worked on its own.

One of the main objectives of the CePT project and one of its chief assets is that it combines the potential inherent in outstanding researchers with opportunities presented by a network of laboratories fitted with high-end equipment. These are physical chemistry labs, biomolecular science and biotechnology labs, laboratories focusing on biomedical engineering and biomaterials technology, facilities carrying out preclinical research on lifestyle diseases using animal models, and specialized facilities for clinical research.

Coordinating so many research fields seems to be a difficult thing to do. What was it like when the partners negotiated the project?

The talks began in 2007. Words led to deeds and a group was formed laying the foundations for the CePT consortium, which today consists of the Medical University of Warsaw, the University of Warsaw, the Warsaw University of Technology and seven PAN institutes. They are the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, the Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics, the Mossakowski Medical Research Centre, the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research, the Institute of High Pressure Physics, and the Nałęcz Institute of Biocybernetics and Biochemical Engineering. The efforts were coordinated by the Medical University of Warsaw as the direct beneficiary of the EU grant for the CePT project.

Working together within a large group like this certainly isn’t easy, which is why we needed a lot of time to work out a compromise. It took years for the funds to arrive from Brussels since the day the idea was first put forward.

What is the secret of your success in securing funds and having them divided fairly among the project partners?

We searched for areas where we could find a common ground for our research; we searched for common goals. What we considered was a program focusing on research per se rather than infrastructure to help us accomplish our plans. We all agreed that the synergy effect came first, which helped us reach a compromise on organizational issues and make decisions about buildings and essential equipment. This also entailed the funds for each of the 10 research centers.

In the initial phase, we approached the Ministry of Science and Higher Education with a request to help us make it onto the list of priority investment programs in science. Then, having teamed up with the ministry, we started preparing the project. Conceptual work continued for 18 months, after which a feasibility study was carried out, producing a lengthy document. The entire application contained over 1,000 pages.

While drawing up the CePT idea, did you follow the example of similar institutions abroad?

In the West, projects of this kind are more institutionalized, the Max Planck Institute being a case in point. We, in turn, have formed a consortium which is the largest biomedical and biotechnological project in Central and Eastern Europe. Each partner in the consortium has different assignments and each makes a different use of EU funds. This is an innovative approach like nothing else in Europe. It was all made possible when the operational programs were established; in our case it was the Innovative Economy Operational Program. Eighty-five percent of the qualified costs are covered by the European Regional Development Fund, while the remaining 15 percent is paid for by Poland; the funds will come from the national budget.

Big money is at stake. What exactly will it be spent on?

The largest project is under way at the Medical University of Warsaw, where we are building the Centre for Preclinical Research from scratch. It is a separate building with technical facilities and extremely valuable research equipment. Another project of similar magnitude will be carried out at the Nencki Institute and further ones at the Institute of High Pressure Physics and the Mossakowski Medical Research Centre. We will build laboratories and buy state-of-the-art equipment for them.

The CePT idea also involves a new platform for technology transfer, is that correct?

You don’t increase research potential just to produce more publications. Our main goal is to put potential research discoveries into practice. Even though the project is largely about investment, when our application entered the final evaluation phase at the European Commission we had to prove we had an idea of how to transfer technology from the lab to the patient. That was both interesting and a good thing to do, because it forced us to come up with a system that we call a technology transfer platform.

From a taxpayer’s point of view, it is important to know that the funds are not spent exclusively on fundamental research, though fundamental research is very important, but also on practical applications. The CePT project perfectly fits with the rapid development of global translational medicine, which aims to transfer the results of preclinical research to medicine practice as quickly as possible.

How should fundamental research be combined with applied medicine?

Fundamental research does not directly translate into practical applications. Such applications may, obviously, emerge in the future, but fundamental research is not about designing a molecule or a new drug. The goal is to, for example, fathom out the mechanism of a disease and the elementary biological and chemical phenomena that underlie it. Application-oriented projects, in turn, are pursued to make sure that their results are put into practice. That takes even more funds because combining fundamental and applied research is extremely expensive. Our project is structured in such a way that even fundamental research will deal with areas that are strictly related to lifestyle diseases.

Which diseases are you focusing on?

Oncological diseases, which means cancer, as well as cardiovascular diseases and disorders of the neurological system, also known as neurodegenerative diseases. These are the biggest ailments plaguing contemporary societies that also have a huge impact on the economy—it’s enough to mention Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease in this context. Another major challenge is the studying of processes governing what is known as neuroplasticity, a phenomenon that follows brain damage. Researchers used to think that cells in the central nervous system were so highly differentiated that they could not regenerate and, consequently, any change was irreversible. As it turns out, the brain has a huge potential for neuroplasticity, that is, an ability to regenerate damage caused, for example, by a stroke.

What can lead the researchers to combat these diseases?

We will study the problems on several different levels. Fundamental science will prevail on the first level. The research will aim to identify the disease mechanisms and biomarkers. The latter make it possible to diagnose a disease early on and predict how it will progress. For instance, when you have two patients diagnosed with the same disease, but one has a genetic change that differs from that in the other patient, you can tell how the disease will develop in both patients. Our other goal in cancer research is targeted therapy, that is, new potential forms of treatment. We are looking for technology to tell us if a given medicine can be administered to ensure the most positive response to treatment among patients with a specific type of cancer. One good thing about this approach is its economic aspect: you know exactly that you are treating patients who are likely to respond to this kind of treatment. You are not indiscriminately treating the entire group of patients who would not respond to the treatment anyway, or even worse, might develop complications and side effects. You will need to find other treatments for such patients.

One the second research level, we will be designing new technology and new drugs. The third level is about diagnostic methods.

What is the rationale behind your investment in computer science, computational methods and research on materials?

All this investment is highly important. Biomedical research combined with physical chemistry and bio-nanomaterials science and aided by state-of-the-art information technology is the most rapidly developing field of research around the world. As far as biomaterials are concerned, the current trend is to design materials and tissues of biological value, such as implants, bone grafts, biodegradable stents and so on. This is a huge opportunity for engineers, including those from the Warsaw University of Technology, to show what they can accomplish working together with physicians and biologists. We have been working closely with Polish Academy of Sciences institutes that have excellent equipment when it comes to computational methods and access to large networks.

Computer analyses are tremendously important as far as research on molecules is concerned. A leading technique these days is the in silico method, called so by analogy to in vitro. Silicon epitomizes processors and so in silico means that when you have good software, you just need to sit in front of your computer and when you have a rough idea of what proteins line the surface of a sick cell, you can screen tens of thousands of substances which could block the functions of a pathological protein and strengthen something else. It is only after such in silico analysis that you pick anywhere between several and several hundred potential molecules and then synthesize them, that is, create a potential drug relying on computer analysis. Then, if you know the structure of a given drug, you can synthesize it in larger quantities for preclinical and, possibly, clinical tests. This saves you decades of work, because otherwise you would have to test each type of molecule separately in complicated models and check it for the desirable effect.

Is the CePT project on schedule in terms of the buildings, labs, equipment and so on?
The buildings will open on time and the project should be finalized by the end of 2013. The shells of the buildings were completed last year and right now utilities are being installed in them. We are also starting bidding procedures to buy the most expensive and most technologically advanced apparatus along with the standard equipment. We are talking huge money here and so the procedures will have to take some time.

How will the research work be financed in the future—once the infrastructure is built?
The research part of the project was an integral component of the grant application and we had to specify what we will be doing once all the infrastructure is in place. As a result, we defined 124 detailed projects to be carried out jointly by partners in different fields of medicine. Money also has to be found for early-phase research where grant applications are really the only way. The infrastructure too can be maintained with money from grants. Similarly, if we want to hire people to work on our projects, we will have to find some external source of financing. We are putting a lot of hope in the National Research and Development Centre, which gives preference to projects focused on practical applications. EU funds will have to be obtained under all kinds of programs to make early-phase research happen. If we invent any promising technology or molecules that could be used to make drugs, such research will also qualify for co-funding from the National Research and Development Centre, but if we want to put our research results to commercial use, immense amounts of money are a must.

Will the infrastructure at your disposal help you apply for more funds?

Absolutely. The Ochota Campus is home to a newly established biotechnology and medicine cluster called BTM Mazowsze. It is a consortium of all kinds of organizations, including CePT partners, private investors and small and medium-sized enterprises working in Poland’s pharmaceutical industry. We are going to invite large pharmaceutical companies to enter the cluster as well. When we manage to take an idea all the way to clinical trials, the stage at which a newly designed drug is administered to people, then the benefits will be enormous to investors, researchers and universities alike. We will write up contracts to safeguard the interests of the researchers who produce the ideas as well as those of the universities and institutes.

When research results are produced by a large group of people working on many levels, splitting the profits might turn out to be difficult…

Which is why legal guarantees are necessary to ensure gains for everyone involved. Research results will be put to commercial use on the basis of funds from the National Research and Development Centre, and the center can award grants of up to several million zlotys. But then again, projects like this, which may yield something truly amazing and new, necessitate huge money and the involvement of strategic partners, including large players in the pharmaceutical industry.

Is this why marketing has to be part of the project?

That is not the only reason. One of the target groups for the marketing campaign is the public. We need to convince taxpayers that we are not wasting public funds, that our goal to prevent and cure diseases and design the best treatments for the people.

The marketing campaign is also targeted at decision makers—those who assign funds to research. We have been proving to them that our research will help optimize treatments as far as pharmacoeconomics is concerned and that the project will benefit those paying for medical services and consequently society as a whole, if we find the markers or new molecules using modern technology.

The next target group are scientists who frequently form very conservative communities. We want to show to them that they can venture into many different fields to pursue practical applications of their work and still make a profit on it. Intellectual value should be paid for, especially when it is used for commercial purposes.

The fourth and final target group are partners among medium-sized and large pharmaceutical enterprises. If we show to them that we have done preliminary, preclinical research with very promising results and if we start early-phase testing of a potential drug on humans, then international corporations will invest in the new technology. Every year, there are a dozen or so such examples around the world when major pharmaceutical companies buy small research-and-development companies or licenses for their ideas.

How will the CePT project be promoted?

Different target groups need different forms of persuasion. We have a website at www.cept.pl and we have been holding conferences to which we invite officials from the ministries of science, health and regional development. We are looking forward to their cooperation and assistance. We will publish news bulletins addressed mainly to small and medium-sized pharmaceutical enterprises and to other research centres in order to demonstrate our potential and show them what we could do together. There will be articles in the press as well. Taxpayers in the EU have the right to know how EU funds are spent. We have to assure them that the funds will not go to waste but will benefit the Polish public and everybody else, and that this can happen as early as at the research phase.

Will foreign researchers work at CePT as well?

These laboratories are intended for use by the research community as a whole. Whatever we build as part of the CePT project will not belong exclusively to us and our partners in the project, but it will be open to the entire science community, including researchers from abroad. If we are approached by someone with an interesting project that fits in well with our facilities and our methodology, the researcher will be welcome to use the equipment and will also be free to decide who they want to work with.

Right now we are applying for European funds to help us form new research teams at CePT. In order to hire a new person or a team, you need to find at least partial financing to get the research started. Such new people are usually young researchers who hold postgraduate degrees and have spent several years working at fine labs around the world. Then, there is the REGPOT program which offers considerable funds for bringing to Poland outstanding researchers from abroad on the basis of a competition procedure.

When do you expect this huge project to start yielding profits?

A couple of years from now, a decade or more. What I mean here are, of course, groundbreaking discoveries and not yet another version of aspirin or an anti-cancer drug similar to those already in use. Work on innovative technology and drugs pays for itself many times. It takes a long time, but the profits are sometimes tremendous. For example, the Weizmann Institute in Israel designed a drug that took 16 years to materialize, but now the medicine is generating over $2 billion in annual profits. There are, of course, fields of research that produce handsome profits within several years. These include new diagnostics methods and new medical technology. It is a win-win situation for everybody, the researchers, enterprises and the public. The Weizmann Institute’s total profits are estimated at $20 billion a year. Obviously, we need to keep our feet firmly fixed on the ground. Our goal is to develop as many diagnostic and therapeutic solutions as possible and make sure they stand a chance of being put into practice. Achieving that will be easier owing to the potential inherent in the consortium and the joint work of the consortium members. Sometimes you just hit the nail on the head and come up with a drug that brings a fortune to institutions and marks a turning point in medical therapy, which is not to say that smaller projects are insignificant—far from it. Some time from now we will consider ourselves successful if we manage to put several projects to commercial use every year.
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