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Interview with Bart Scheerder, UMCG

Healthy Ageing in the Northern Netherlands: “Health equality is key.”

Bart Scheerder has been working for the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) since 2003. In 2013 he joined the Center for Development and Innovation team, where he specializes in public private partnerships in the digital health and biobanking domain. Scheerder looks forward to participating in the LSH Innovation Weeks. He tells us about his work at the UMCG and his relationship with Japan.

Public and private partnerships

“Oddly enough, very few people in The Netherlands realize that the Dutch UMCs are all among the best of the world,” Bart Scheerder says. “They do extremely well in the international university rankings because they combine groundbreaking basic research with clinical practice. To maintain or even strengthen this position, international research collaborations are key, with public organizations as well as private ones. Most of our private partners are multinationals.”

What’s the aim of collaborations with private partners? “At UMCG we create essential scientific knowledge which needs to be transferred to industrial partners in public private partnerships, so that together we can develop products and services that benefit society. That’s where companies come in. This process, the road from bench to bedside, is a very interesting part of my job at the UMCG.”

A life-course approach to Healthy Ageing

In 2006, the UMCG decided to focus on Healthy Ageing as core theme for all its activities. “Ideally, we should not invest in combating disease – we should invest in ageing healthily. This starts way before your first grey hair appears. We take a life-course approach. Prevention is one of our three pillars of our research strategy. The others are understanding the biology of ageing, and developing innovative diagnostics and therapies.”

“When we started focusing on Healthy Ageing in 2006, our aim was to add two healthy years to citizens’ lives in our region by 2020. This goal has been achieved,” Bart says. “It connects excellently to Health~Holland’s ambition of adding 5 healthy years to Dutch people’s lives by 2040. I also appreciate their goal to significantly reduce health inequality between the highest and lowest economical classes. A great ambition that connects very well with what we were already doing at UMCG. Through the years, we have built up the required knowledge, expertise and infrastructure to make a significant contribution to these goals.”

“We put a lot of effort into organizing projects around ‘health literacy’. We believe this is very important. Especially in rural areas, on average, prosperity and education levels are lower. This is related to more unhealthy behavior (smoking, alcohol, etc.), poorer health, and more healthcare consumption. If we can make a difference in this population, it benefits the people who really need it, and we can contribute to Health~Holland’s goal.”

“We have developed the necessary infrastructure
to contribute to a healthier society.”

Similar studies in Japan and The Netherlands

Other impressive work initiated by UMCG is the large-scale cohort study called Lifelines. “At the start in 2006, we asked all citizens between the ages of 25 and 50 to participate in a study that will span across 30 years. We then asked whether we could ask their family members to join. That is how we set up a three-generation cohort. Every five years, various measurements are taken, such as an ECG and a lung function test, and biological samples are taken (e.g. blood, urine). And every year and a half, the participants complete extensive questionnaires about many different health related topics. In all, 10% of the Northern Netherlands population participates.”

“In Japan, a similar study is going on. After the Great East-Japan Earthquake of 2011, a population cohort called ToMMo was set up. They have 150,000 participants. Early on, we had the pleasure of welcoming a committee to Groningen to share our experiences. Now, we visit every year to exchange knowledge and explore collaborative research opportunities.”

Learning from each other

“The world has already learned a lot from Japan,” Bart concludes. “The number of Nobel laureates from Japan is high. They have outstanding universities and innovative companies, doing extremely valuable research. And in our field, there is a lot we can learn from each other.”

This year, a visit to Japan is impossible due to COVID-19. “That is why these digital events dedicated to Japan are important to us, because we value our relationships. Every time I go to Japan, I visit many relations, some of which I consider my friends. The Japan Microbiome Consortium, for instance, a consortium of 35 companies who invest in microbiome research. An important topic that we share ideas about. I will definitely miss that this year.”

Find out more about Healthy Ageing in The Netherlands.

Want to hear more from Bart Scheerder? Contact him here.

Companies

UMCG has had healthy ageing as a core theme in research, education and care since 2006

Themes

Achieving Healthy Ageing is not an easy task

Healthy ageing & Senior care