Pamela Habibovic: ‘Everything is intertwined’

february 22, 2018

MERLN plays a pivotal role in research on regenerative medicine

It made world news in the academic community four years ago when an entire research group moved from one university to the other. Pamela Habibovic has no regrets. After getting her PhD from the University of Twente in 2005, working on various research projects in the U.S. and Canada, and then returning to the University of Twente where she held a managerial position, she was offered the opportunity to become a professor in Maastricht. “The most appealing part of it was being able to help build a completely new institute,” she says, “to be a pioneer with lots of freedom and the support of Maastricht University. We started out with around 15 people, and now there are nearly 100 researchers and PhD students working here.”

Pivotal role

It took less than four years for MERLN located at Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus to play the role it wants and needs to play: setting up and implementing its own research and acting as a knowledge institute for other parties. “We work for and with doctors at the Maastricht UMC+ and private companies such as DSM and Xplore Instruments, and play a pivotal role at the Brightlands campuses in Maastricht and Sittard-Geleen. There will undoubtedly also be partnerships forged with the campuses in Venlo and Heerlen in the near future, but for now, we are concentrating on the development of new materials and platforms for regenerative medicine and other biomedical applications, the mainstays of the campuses in Maastricht and Sittard-Geleen.”

Located at Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus, the MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine has state-of-the-art research laboratories at its disposal, financed by the Province of Limburg, among others. “These labs and equipment weren't there before, so they complement the other facilities. There is an ISO 7 cleanroom for micro- and nanotechnology, for example. We do research here with PhD students on biomaterials that can stimulate the growth of bone tissue in the body, for example. There are also studies on materials or cells that enable the body to start forming new bone, cartilage or organ tissue. We are working on several promising projects. A good example is a granular ceramic material that stimulates bone growth. This enables doctors to repair severe fractures or replace bones after cancer, for example. A product based on this material is already being applied in a clinical setting.”


“We aren’t this far along with all the applications yet,” Pamela Habibovic quickly adds, “but the research is progressing steadily. Once we start seeing encouraging results, we can begin clinical trials. This is the major advantage of being so close to the MUMC+. In Sittard-Geleen, the facilities are there for developing bio-based materials, particularly plastics. This is also where some of the 3D printers are. At the medical center in Maastricht, we have access to specialists and patients. And then there are the private companies that are helping to finance research and are ready to valorise medically proven therapies and materials. Ultimately it’s all about the results, about helping patients.”


This is also why the MERLN labs are not off-limits for third parties. “On the contrary; it’s about cooperation, open innovation. Bundling knowledge and facilities is necessary in order to achieve real breakthroughs. A great example is one of the electron microscopes that is in Sittard-Geleen. This is an expensive piece of equipment that we actually couldn’t finance on our own. As it turned out, DSM also needed the same microscope. We ended up sharing the costs and were able to make the purchase. This makes our labs even more interesting as they now offer more options. Imaging is essential to regenerative medicine, and with this microscope, we can see even more.”

The MERLN labs are available for all of the parties at and near the Brightlands campuses, including entrepreneurs working within the scope of collaborative projects. “This also applies to people who are doing and supervising research in the labs. Questions can be turned into studies and PhD tracks. My own research group is working on various projects. We are working with the Ophthalmology department on research on the use of nano particles in diagnoses and treatment. Using the nano particles, the doctor can follow the cells in the eye and see where degeneration and regeneration are occurring. Of course it’s up to the doctors to take it from there.”

Tissue growth

MERLN, located at Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus, has three divisions that focus on different research fields: Cell Biology Inspired Tissue Engineering (research on cell behavior in regenerative medicine), Complex Tissue Regeneration (development of technologies for regenerative medicine on a nano-, micro- and macro scale) and Instructive Biomaterials Engineering, Pamela Habibovic’s division that focuses on the development of smart biomaterials for regenerative medicine. “These are three distinct areas, but there is a lot of overlap and shared interests between them. The concept that cooperation is essential also applies to us. Everything is intertwined; studies affect one another. Since we have built this entire institute from scratch, we know each other. There are no partitions. This is also how we operate on the campuses. We build platforms that everyone can join; doctors, clinicians, researchers, companies and students. It’s an open structure which allows us to make rapid advancements.”


MERLN’s work and that of Pamela Habibovic in particular have not gone unnoticed. She has won various grants for research projects, last year she scored a personal VIDI grant from the NWO, and together with five other Dutch researchers, she managed to bring in over 18 million Euros in a research subsidy. These contributions are more than welcome. “We’re just getting started; there is still so much to study. MERLN’s schedule is pretty full.”

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