Ulf Nehrbass

Ulf Nehrbass

CEO of Luxembourg Institute of Health

Healthcare / Luxembourg

“Luxembourg will become a showcase for how research will become more translational and integrative”

The Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) is leading the development of medical research in niches that the small but sophisticated nation can develop quickly, namely in biomedical and translational research. Ulf Nehrbass, CEO of LIH, explains how Luxembourg’s small market is being used as an asset in integrated medical research.

Can you give us a general overview of Luxembourg biomedical public research landscape today?
Luxembourg’s investments into biomedical research over the last 10 to 15 years have really paid out. We have reached a very high quality in terms of biomedical research. Yet, if you compare to the amount of work and research produced in neighbor countries such as France and Germany, these are extremely superior to what comes out of Luxembourg. While the quality of input has been reached, it is difficult for Luxembourg to compete on the level of scientific excellence alone. There is still a large potential to grow. In continental Europe the translational structures are not as effective as they are elsewhere when it comes to applied research excellence towards innovation – and that means drugs, therapies, new biomarkers, etc. Luxembourg aims to position itself exactly in this translational niche – that means create processes, operational and financing tools, and integrative work mode that lead to more effective translation. That is one area with potential that we can see here very clearly. We are not looking at isolated research islands, but at integrated processes. Luxembourg is looking at integrating what is called ‘bed to bench to bed cycles’ to actually be able to realize a retro-plan and scientific endeavor that starts with an un-met need of patients in the hospital, to develop it at the bench and research, then bring it back to the bed into clinical phases. This ‘bed to bench to bed’ integration is working better here than in other countries, simply because the distances are shorter and everything is more integrated, and the vertical planning can be realized here more effectively. That way Luxembourg will become a showcase for how research will become more translational and integrative, as well as and have a greater impact on more patients.

Can you give us some examples of discoveries, innovative therapies or successful clinical experiments conducted by LIH?
LIH has reached excellent research levels, as far as publications and output is concerned. We are positioned in areas that are extremely relevant, such as inflammation and inflammatory diseases. We have a very strong oncology department. Our department of publication health is designed to create and connect the institutes with the clinic in an integrative ‘bed to bench to bed’ cycles. The positioning and outlook at LIH is thus different from classical research institutions, in that the transversal translational structure has already been put in the design. Having started late compared to other research institutions, Luxembourg has somehow managed to anticipate a tendency or movement that you can now see in other countries and in other research centers.

What are your plans in order to further integrate Luxembourg and LIH with international partners, and intensify your collaboration with universities, healthcare professionals and hospitals all over the world?
Luxembourg is in the heart of Europe and the whole country is very multilingual, so connecting with other countries is simply easy and effective for us. France and Germany are highly advanced in terms of biomedical research; however there is potential for translation there for the application of basic research excellence towards the patients. That is where Luxembourg is trying to create synergies. We are trying to create translation engine, to create structures and mechanisms that bring research excellence to improvement in research and healthcare, and the research excellence that on the other hand we have in abundance in France and Germany. I think there is a natural fit in having translational collaboration, where basically Luxembourg will be able to productively put in good use the research that has been produced in our neighbor countries.

Can you give us few examples of cooperation projects that you have at the moment?
It’s actually difficult to draw the line because we work in such close collaboration here in Luxembourg, but there is a project on Parkinson disease conducted in partnership with the University. Parkinson disease is actually a very good example of our ‘bed to bench to bed’ cycle, where there are international collaborations with clinics in France and Germany, where patients are co-parts of it. Luxembourg is becoming recognized as a central international player globally in that area. We also have another initiative that is now being started in collaboration with centers in Paris, Strasbourg and Freiburg in the field of personalized medicine in cancer. Several oncology departments are working together to come up with personalized life treatments for patients. Technically we may be able to come more and more with personalized solutions for patients; however there is a regulatory limitation. It is not always easy to find a collaboration, but it’s not always easy either to find regulatory safety either when it comes to treating patient with potentially no effective solution that are outside the standard of care. On that front, Luxembourg is able to have a first mover advantage in creating regulatory safety and in establishing personalized healthcare solutions. That is one of the major attractive points that we have here. It’s not all about the technologies, but it’s also about regulations and what you can apply to the patient. I can see a first mover mentality here in Luxembourg, and that is why it’s so attractive for biomedical professionals to work here.

What are you doing concretely in order to encourage technical and scientific cooperation, technology transfer, open innovation and bridge the gap with the private sector internationally?
In a new translation era, where the translation of basic research to application becomes more feasible based on technology, it is important to develop new financing tools. They can be public financing tools, or the can be risk funds, whereby funding is given for retro-planned, integrated ‘bed to bench to bed’ programs, which are meant to reach clear value inflection points with clear milestones, deliverables and timelines, so you can envision a certain return on investment. These new style of funding tools that are starting to emerge, will find a better traction here in Luxembourg, where the country is more reactive and more flexible.

What are Luxembourg’s major challenges as a young biomedial research destination?
We have to develop the tools that will make Luxembourg attractive on the international level. This can be done by being reactive with our regulatory framework, or by creating a planning safety in the area of individualized or personalized medicine. This can be done as well building a new translation model, and new financing tools to make Luxembourg a translational hub in Europe. Our strength therefore will not be research excellence alone, but we want to be distinguished in our ability to apply research more effectively.

What are your plans in regards to recruitment and talent attraction?
The type of talented people and researchers we want to attract here are very keen on good ideas and well-structured solutions, and I can see that Luxembourg can offer that very well. People who understand the type of e-health and translational work that is being established here are very much attracted to Luxembourg. So overall it is the quality of research and originality of the framework and concepts that are being developed here that are very attractive. Luxembourg’s first mover mentality in the regulatory framework also helps attract the best people.