Cross-pollination at the coffee machine 

How do scientific breakthroughs happen? It starts with an idea, of course. But then you're not there yet. How do you find the right people to team up with? Professor of Radiotherapy Rob Coppes tells how his research on salivary gland stem cell transplantation started with conversations at the coffee machine more than 20 years ago. And how a recent cup of coffee might help the research move forward.   

Photo: Rob Coppes, second from right, talking to some researchers.

The very first seed for his current research was planted in the early 2000s, at a scientific conference in Oxford. Rob Coppes, then a postdoc in the Radiobiology Department at the UMCG, sees a poster there about how mice are treated with stem cells. 'I remember it well, it was about cells injected into the spinal cord of mice that slow down paralysis symptoms. I thought: 'I should be able to do something with that too.'

One problem: Rob doesn't have enough expertise in this field himself. But fate lends him a hand. Some time later, when the Department of Cell Biology is set up in the UMCG, the working rooms are redistributed. Coppes has to share his room with someone from the research group of stem cell biologist Gerald de Haan. And now let Gerald and his team know all about bone marrow stem cells.

Unexpected success

At the coffee machine, Rob talks to his new roommates about his idea: treating cancer patients suffering from dry mouth with stem cells that restore the salivary gland. 'At the time, we started with a pilot experiment, trying to restore the salivary gland in mice with stem cells from bone marrow. The experiment succeeded. With a KWF grant, we then did more extensive research. That was initially a setback: the treatment with stem cells from bone marrow did not work well after all. But: in the control group we worked with stem cells from the salivary gland itself and what turned out: that did work. Serendipity!", Rob glows.

In the many years that followed, the technique was taken a step further, with the help of colleagues inside and outside the UMCG. For instance, the researchers work together with the Department of Oral Surgery, which helps to remove pieces of salivary gland from patients for examination. And through Hans Clevers, a researcher at the Hubrecht Institute of the KNAW, they are further developing the technique for growing stem cells.

It finally brings Rob and his team over 20 years later to where they are today: the first patients are being treated with their own stem cells.

The secret

What can we learn from this unexpected cross-pollination that started at the coffee machine? 'It's good to know people and what they do,' Rob explains. 'Even if you don't have an immediate common ground. Be open to others, and get them excited about the things you are working on and the ideas you have. A few years later, something can suddenly turn into a collaboration.' 

Will coffee help again?

Meanwhile, Rob, now 62, continues his research. 'Eventually I hope to have it ready before retirement,' he says, laughing. 'Now, within our research, we treat a small group of patients with cells we grow here in our laboratory. Follow-up studies should show whether we can also treat large groups of patients. If you want to do this for hundreds of patients you need to scale up, and that is only possible together with other parties.'

Possibly a cup of coffee helped with this too. 'Today I spoke to researchers working with CAR-T cells to treat cancer patients,' Rob says. 'They are going to collaborate with other hospitals to grow cells. Perhaps that offers opportunities for us too.

Tuesday 9 May: lecture for laymen on developments in cancer care

Want to know more about oncology developments and how they have come about at UMG over the past decades? There will be a special lecture on this on Tuesday 9 May, as the UMCG celebrates its 225th anniversary this year. UMCG lecture on cancer care: groundbreaking developments over the years (in Dutch).