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The MERLN Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine was founded in 2014 by Prof. Clemens van Blitterswijk, who led the institute until December 2018. In 2019, Prof. Pamela Habiboviç became the new director of MERLN, but Van Blitterswijk continues to serve as a principal investigator and scientific advisor.

Van Blitterswijk is known for several seminal contributions to the field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. His contribution and leadership in the field can be viewed in three chapters:

The Founder

In the early 1990s, van Blitterswijk was one of a small group of scientists worldwide who was beginning to realize that biomaterials could be used to induce the body’s cells to heal damaged tissues. These discoveries formed the basis for a new field called tissue engineering, which aims to replace or regenerate diseased or damaged tissues through a combination of biology and engineering. Van Blitterswijk is widely considered to be the founder of tissue engineering in Europe. In this period, his scientific breakthroughs included:

  • Osteoinductivity. It was known that biomaterials implanted in a damaged bone site could encourage healing, but van Blitterswijk was one of the first to prove that some synthetic materials could spontaneously trigger stem cells to generate entirely new bone tissue, a concept called “osteoinductivity”. As a reflection of his leading position, he was granted multiple patents to safeguard this invention. To date, >100,000 patients have been treated with products developed from this breakthrough, and the research line is continued in both a publicly traded company and by one of his former PhD students who now chairs her own department.
  • Mesenchymal stem/stromal cells (MSCs). Today, MSCs are the most commonly used cell source for musculoskeletal tissue engineering. Van Blitterswijk is responsible for some of the breakthrough understanding of the power of these cells to regenerate cartilage and bone. He showed that MSCs could be reliably differentiated in vitro to form bone tissue and so he proceeded to validate his findings in vivo. The pre-clinical studies in mice were highly promising, but the first experiments in human patients were a failure. What van Blitterswijk determined from these negative results is that vascularization is needed for large tissue engineered constructs. This insight changed the direction of the field, and many groups today focus their research on vascularization and design animal experiments in a way that replicates the dimensions of human patients.

The steadfast leader

In the next period, which began around 2009, van Blitterswijk set up and assumed the directorship of the MIRA Institute at the University of Twente. Under his guidance, the growing field of tissue engineering had shifted from trial-and-error approaches to more knowledge-based systematic discoveries. While van Blitterswijk has always been an early adopter of new technology, he emphasized and developed his own technological innovations during this stage. In doing so, he pushed the entire tissue engineering field to consider the role of technology in their research. In this period, breakthroughs included:

  • Materiomics. For the second time in his career, van Blitterswijk was the force behind a new field, this time designing a means to shift tissue engineering away from trial-and-error to a more systematic approach. Termed “materiomics", and based upon a technology called the Topochip, van Blitterswijk successfully brought high-throughput technology into tissue engineering as a way to deal with the complexity of designing biomaterials. Today, discoveries from this new approach are in pre-clinical trials with promising results.
  • Bottom-up tissue engineering. Following on lessons from his early MSC experiments, van Blitterswijk realized that scaling up tissue engineering from studies in rodents to the large sizes needed for humans was going to be a major bottleneck for clinical translation. In response, he came up with a strategy in which small tissue blocks could be built with the help of biomaterials, and they could be combined to create larger tissue constructs. This also enabled the incorporation of a vasculature. Today, this is a prominent strategy in tissue engineering.

The Future Builder

Today, van Blitterswijk is  more than ever oriented towards the future, but is also returning to his scientific origins as a cell biologist, bringing the technology he has developed into research on (stem) cells in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. He is increasingly taking on high-risk, high-reward projects to advance tissue engineering to its next generation of innovation and breakthroughs. For example, he conceived an in vitro platform to generate so-called artificial blastocysts by mimicking the development of a mouse embryo and harnessing the power of cell self-organization, for which he was awarded the ERC Advanced grant in 2015. He is undertaking an ambitious, 10-year project for the rational design of biomaterials for regenerative medicine under a Gravitation grant awarded in 2017. Additionally, he founded and is leading an international consortium (Regenerative Medicine Crossing Borders; RegMed XB) aiming to bring multiple cures for chronic diseases to patients in the next ten years.

Biography Prof Dr C.A. van Blitterswijk

For his scientific work, van Blitterswijk has received a number of prestigious international awards including the George Winter award of the European society for Biomaterials, the Career Achievement Award of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society, and election as a member of the KNAW. Clemens van Blitterswijk graduated as cell biologist at Leiden University in 1982 and defended his PhD thesis in 1985 at the same university. Today most of his research focuses on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, forming a unique basis of multidisciplinary research between materials and life sciences. Van Blitterswijk has authored and co-authored more than 380 peer reviewed papers (H index 72, Scopus); he is one of the most freqently cited Dutch scientists in Materials Science; he is the applicant and co-applicant of over 100 patents; he has guided 50 PhD candidates through their thesis as supervisor or co-supervisor and currently has 30 PhD candidates under his supervision.

Van Blitterswijk has acted on numerous national and international advisory boards relating directly to either life and material sciences or to the economic applications thereof. He has held various positions in these organizations including chairman of the Dutch Society for Biomaterials, treasurer of the European Society for Biomaterials, and council member of TERMIS (Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society). During his career, he has co-founded multiple biomedical companies and held several functions in these organizations. Today, he combines his Professorship at Maastricht with a Founding Partnership of the new LSP-Health Economics Fund (LSP-HEF) of the European health care investment group Life Sciences Partners (LSP).

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