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Hartcollectief; inaugural lecture on scientific collaboration, passion, trust, and much more

 

 

 

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What does LEGO have to do with a human heart? And how do adults in a kindergarten or a message in the bottle relate to it? All of the above was explained during the inaugural lecture of professor Joost Sluijter on the 16th of February, in the majestic Aula of the University Hall of Utrecht. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Although the running joke among the organizers is that it only served as a warm-up session, the 6th edition of Utrecht Stem Cell Conference that preceded the lecture succeeded once more in enriching the day with a plethora of interesting talks, lively discussions, and interactive sessions. Achievements and future outlook in the field of cardiac regeneration were presented by well-established national and international speakers, as well as by young researchers in the poster session and their selected talks – all under the umbrella of regenerative medicine. Keynote speaker this year was Francisco Fernández-Avilés, a professor at Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón in Madrid. He delivered an inspiring lecture on TACTICS, the transnational alliance for regenerative therapies in cardiovascular syndromes. Professors Robert Passier, Ina Gruh, Jos Malda, Steven Chamuleau, and Susmita Sahoo further contributed to this day with the topics ranging from iPSC technologies to biomaterials for tissue repair. Unfortunately, the previously announced panel promoting the patients’ perspective was unexpectedly cancelled. However, in the closing remarks, professor Chamuleau touched upon that important session by reminding us that in our research we should always bear in mind the patients’ benefit.

In a similar vein, professor Sluijter commenced his inaugural lecture by sharing with the immense audience a personal story about his father, whose health condition inspired him to pursue a career in cardiovascular science. First he explained that the title of his oration “Hartcollectief” (or “Heart Collective”) refers to both the team of professionals that collaborate to tackle heart disease, as well as the tissues that make up this organ, whose complexity he later compared to a LEGO heart made up of a myriad of different pieces. Then, he provided an overview of his research steered towards the regeneration of the myocardium in patients with heart failure. Specifically, he explained the purpose of the induced pluripotent stem cells using the analogy of sending adults to a kindergarten in order for them to get an entirely new education. He further elaborated on the role of the immune system in cardiovascular disease and on auto-immune reactions in heart failure, as well as the ethical side of animal research.

Then, he explained what extracellular vesicles were, as well as their function as delivery vehicles, by comparing them to a cellular message in a bottle. As for his message to all of the present scientists, he emphasized the importance of collaborations and of maintaining a high level of quality in their work. The pressure to perform can sometimes be overwhelmingly high and therefore, in order to set an example for others, he took an oath to conduct research according to the principles of proper scientific research and education: honesty and reliability, carefulness and controllability, independence, impartiality, and responsibility. He then swore to promote these principles among his colleagues and other scientists.

In the second part of the lecture professor Sluijter focussed on the non-scientific aspects of his professorship, with his promise to create a pleasant and dynamic work environment, where young talented researchers would be guided in order to create and seize the opportunities for their further development. Moreover, he would like to see the inclusion of patients in the development of their treatment, as has been done very successfully with the PLN association. This cooperation has proven to be fruitful on both scientific and medical fronts, as well as with regards to financing research.

Prior to expressing his gratitude, the lecture was concluded with the remark that there should always be space for creativity and opposing ideas within the UMC Utrecht and the Utrecht University, and that in his “Heart Collective” there is no space for individual and political interests. He claimed that content must always be the motivator and that collaboration, passion, and trust must be cherished to the utmost. Professor Sluijter ended by thanking his team, his promotors, his parents, and wife and children, his own heart collective seated in the front row. And, in the context of this very special scientific day, intertwined with heart-warming, personal stories and advices, Joost Sluijter accepted his chair as Professor of Cellular and Translational Cardiology.

SANDRA CRNKO AND CASPER VAN DER VEN