Robert Pol: Winner of the 2021 UMCG Innovation Prize for research News
At the UMCG, innovation is something that flows through our veins. Being a UMCG researcher, educator or care professional means being innovative. To motivate our staff and show our dedication to innovation, we hand out the innovation prizes for research, education and care on a yearly basis. This prize comes with a fund of 50.000 euro to advance the innovative project. This series showcases how the prizes help UMCG professionals to push the boundaries towards a sustainable future of healthcare. In 2021, Robert Pol, vascular and transplantation surgeon at the UMCG won the innovation prize for science.
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Robert Pol won the innovation prize for his research on the consequences of kidney transplantation on the donor kidney. Robert about his research: “In more than half of the transplants we use a kidney of a deceased donor. We don’t know much about this organ, it is a black box. A day before the donor patient dies, we measure the kidney’s performance. It is a short snapshot, but it is all we have. When issues arise after the kidney is transplanted, it is very hard to establish the cause. Were the issues expected because it wasn’t a very good kidney in the first place? Is the kidney still in a state of recovery? Are there blood circulation issues, or are we seeing the early signs of rejection of the kidney by the receiving body? With the current knowledge, our options  are limited when such issues arise. We could wait and see, and risk that the problem escalates. Or we could perform a biopsy, where we remove a bit of tissue from the kidney, but this is an invasive procedure and it doesn’t guarantee success.” 

In search of a baseline

“For this innovation prize project, we start by analyzing a healthy kidney that is still inside a living donor. This will give us a baseline understanding of the transplantation effect. We could only judge what is abnormal if we know what is normal. If I would scan a healthy person I would see the physiology of the kidney, I see how it normally performs. If I were to take the kidney out and put it in someone else’s body, that kidney will start to respond differently. This is called the transplantation effect. This is a baseline for any transplantation model. After we have established a baseline, we could use it to assess the health and functioning of kidneys from deceased donors.”

Robert aims for his research to eventually lead to the application of artificial intelligence when using an MRI to scan kidneys from both living and deceased donors, the latter only once transplanted. Such a self-learning system will increase the knowledge of the effects of transplantation on kidneys, which will translate to enhanced predictability of treatment for persons who receive a donor kidney. In this sense, Robert Pol’s research fits well with the vision of the UMCG: innovation is key, but the patient should always be in focus. 

The UMCG Innovation Prize: not just a nice-to-have

The UMCG innovation prize is not just a good occasion to showcase innovation at the UMCG, the prize is also a necessary addition to the current landscape of research funding.  Although there are quite some organizations financing medical research, certain research is often overlooked. The UMCG innovation prize attempts to fill the gaps, and therein lies the potential of the prize, explains Robert. 

“We tried getting funding for our project from the big funders. We then got the reaction: ‘What you are doing is very nice, cutting edge, artificial intelligence is the future, but how sure are you that you are going to find what you are looking for?’ Because what we still needed to prove was something we knew only from small experimental studies. For that reason we got turned down in the last stages of grant proposals several times. We need the conceptual data we aim to generate with this project to be successful when applying for bigger grants.” This sums up perfectly how the innovation prizes advance health research at the UMCG.