I decide to put my iPhone in dictation mode so I don’t miss a single word. Technology marches on, and the iPhone is a small miracle. It can do anything. Well, almost. “I’d like to be able to hook it up to a mass spectrometer,” he says with a smile-ebullient, sympathetic Ron Heeren. We talk about the Brightlands campuses, where active knowledge-sharing is everyday practice, and about mass spectrometry, his area of specialization.
The particle scale
Ron and his team are using mass spectrometry to study particle mass in patients and in materials such as polymers. Once they know the mass, they have a better idea of what they’re actually dealing with. They want to analyze all sorts of complex surfaces. In patients, they analyze complex combinations of particles, for example, the molecules that make up bodily fluids and tissues. If they can determine the structure of these surfaces, and see how disease changes them, then they can better understand what’s causing the disease and can identify precisely where those chemical or biological processes are taking place.
Mass spectrometry is a technique, Ron explains. It can analyze how molecules are distributed on a piece of tissue or another complex surface. “Our imaging technology allows us to take pictures of the process at the molecular level. With the technology we’ve developed, a simple click of the button captures not one but thousands of images of all kinds of different molecules. Just one click and we see the entire distribution of proteins, fatty acids, lipids, and DNA. Then we can identify them and their location. That means we can access an endless stream of information.” Big Data on a microscopic scale.
Brave new world, brave new language
One of the main reasons Ron came to Maastricht University was to roll out his research in clinical practice. “We’re part of the general pathology and surgery department here, and the place is just buzzing with ideas! This is a brave new world.” In Ron’s view the key to every study is “fun”. “That’s the main thing that I try to communicate to my team. It doesn’t matter what kind of research you’re doing, as long as it’s something you truly enjoy. Because only then will you be at your best.”
What other job would give me the chance to think freely about the big problems afflicting humanity?
“My personal ideal has more to do with how I see the role of science,” says Ron. “I think basic research is extremely important. I enjoy addressing the fundamental issues, but I don’t believe in science for science’s sake. It has to have a real purpose. My personal ideal: top-drawer basic research—but with the opportunity to put the results to real practical use, whether we’re talking about a biomaterial developed at Brightlands Chemelot Campus or a hospital patient. What’s important is being able to work through the entire sequence, from basic research to instrument to practical application to value creation. My ideal is an institute that combines all of that. And Maastricht MultiModal Molecular Imaging Institute (M4I) at Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus comes pretty close.”
It’s clear what Ron’s secret is: He really finds all those perspectives, aspects, and problems fascinating. He revels in his work. He enjoys the work of others. He’s a whirlwind of information, lessons, change, and growth. He pursues his ideals with the same energy that his entire team pursues anomalous molecules.
What we do here shouldn’t be hidden away. On the contrary. We’re working for the community, so everyone should be able to see what we’re up to. Everything we do is for the people and is paid for by the people.
Heeren and research
“Research is fun,” says Ron. “People have the wrong idea about scientists. They see us as sad, pale people with thick glasses crouched over test tubes in stuffy laboratories with fluorescent lighting. Yikes! That’s not what it’s like at all! Research is so much fun! It’s much more dynamic, interesting, creative these days. It’s a team sport. The big research questions have gotten so big that it will take more than one discipline to solve them. To address these major questions in a hospital setting, we need physicians, clinicians, mathematicians, chemists, biologists, equipment technicians, computer scientists, and treatment specialists. And only by getting all of them together in one place will we be able solve the really big problems.”
Brightlands: Knowledge crossing borders
“Among other things, that slogan means that this region isn’t limited by a national borders everywhere. But what’s maybe even more important is that we’re also crossing the boundaries between disciplines. And that, in turn, is reflected in our teaching. It’s so much more refreshing than what we were all accustomed to at the older universities. But it’s also embedded in the culture that we’ve imported from Amsterdam.” In 2014, Heeren’s research group at AMOLF transferred to Maastricht University. The entire team of more than twenty researchers moved to Limburg. His group is one of the world’s top-three in protein imaging.
The Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMOLF) is part of the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).
“When you walk through the corridors of Maastricht University, it does look a little stuffy. The laboratories are all hidden away, invisible, locked up tight. We’ve already remodeled one floor, and we’ve opened everything up. You can see right across the entire length of the building now. It was a tremendous shock for a lot of people here. But it was a turning point in their thinking. What we do here shouldn’t be hidden away. On the contrary. We’re working for the community, so everyone should be able to see what we’re up to.”
He offers a glimpse into the future in the shape of the iKnife. The iKnife is a surgical scalpel. As it cuts into tissue, it collects molecular data around the incision so that the surgeon can work with even greater precision. According to Ron, the interesting thing is that technical innovations like the iKnife will teach us new things about such molecules. “They’re located on the margins of tumors, the edges that still appear reasonably normal but that are already changing at molecular level. Now we can detect those changes during surgery, so that the surgeon can make precise incisions right outside the edges.”
“It's great to have so many major players here, like Brains Unlimited, Maastricht University, and Maastricht UMC+. We’re close to Aachen. Brightlands Chemelot Campus is in the neighborhood. We had already worked with DSM on polymer analysis.
“This region has precisely the strengths we need to improve our research. What makes it unique is that, right here in the middle of the Brightlands Campus, we’re setting up an imaging institute at Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus, right next door to the MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine. That means that, within a thirty-kilometer radius, we’re building a leading research infrastructure, embedded in a health campus that’s unmatched in the world!”
One of the reasons for my coming here is that I can truly cross the boundaries between disciplines.
Maastricht 4 Imaging
“The institute’s name is M4I. That stands for the Maastricht MultiModal Molecular Imaging Institute. But I always say it stands for Maastricht 4 Imaging. It’s a name that we hope will attract people.” And it surely will, thanks to Ron’s ambition, energy, and creativity, and his unique team.
The Limburg Chair
The Dutch Province of Limburg has already made clear that it wants to invest in the Limburg Knowledge Axis and promote the region’s high-tech image. The new university professors play an important role in that scheme. The Province is making funding available to them to act as ambassadors—both inside and outside Limburg—for the kind of unique research that’s taking place here. “My work at M4I is linked to the research being carried out at Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus. So I always put Brightlands in the spotlight when I talk to others.”