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Medical Delta professor Marcel Reinders: ‘You need collaboration to make a real impact’

Prof. Marcel Reinders is a data science specialist at Delft University of technology. Using smart algorithms, he searches for links in complex data. For example, he studies patterns in DNA that lead to aberrant cell behaviour. This knowledge will help detect serious diseases such as Alzheimer's and various types of cancer at an earlier stage. Thanks to Medical Delta, Reinders is now also a professor at the LUMC in Leiden, which has many advantages. ‘Making new contacts and sharing data is easier, I can supervise PhD students and I am on various committees. I am really one of them now.’

Marcel Reinders on his research

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‘I have been working with other disciplines and medics for a long time,’ Marcel explains. ‘But what I see nowadays is that it is more often and more intensive, which actually makes sense. Technological developments have drastically changed medical research. Complex technology plays an increasingly important part and that requires specialist knowledge. Different disciplines need each other to have a bigger impact. 

‘In computing, Moore’s law applies, which states that the speed of computers doubles every 12 to 24 months. But in the medical field, a fundamental technological improvement seems to be introduced every year. This is happening so fast that you have to specialise to be able to keep up. And it involves a whole range of techniques. Take 3D printing, for example. The first devices came along 15 years ago; nowadays it is possible to print living tissue. And ten years ago there was very little mention of Artificial Intelligence, whereas now it is an integral part of my research.’

Marcel Reinders

What is it like to work with researchers from another university?

‘It takes a while before you understand each other. The subject itself is different; you have to grow into it. The culture varies as well. Within an institute, for example, people say ‘this is how we do things’. Then I think as someone from outside: why? The language is different, too. Recently, we were talking about the word ‘model’. For a molecular biologist that is a cell, for me it is an algorithm.

‘The cooperation within Medical Delta is very important to enable new breakthroughs in science. I am proud to be a part of it.’

How can you work on projects for many different diseases at the same time? 

‘I am a data science specialist and enjoy developing algorithms and capturing complexity in a computer model. It doesn't really matter which application I do that for. You do need specific knowledge of a certain domain, and over the years I have also acquired some knowledge myself, but the most important thing is to enter into intensive collaborations for this. Collaborations for the long term, in which it is worthwhile to invest in each other and in which you trust each other's knowledge and skills.’

How will we in the Netherlands benefit from these collaborations?

‘By working together, we can ensure that the Netherlands leads the field in research and clinical applications. So that patients here will be the first to benefit from new developments. For example genetic tests that enable early detection of diseases. Or, for example, a project that I am working on with the LUMC in which we are looking for the answer to the question, ‘How healthy is a person?’ We are developing a quantitative measure for this based on metabolite measurements in blood. With that, we will be able to measure how healthy someone is. We can then carry out an intervention, for example, exercise more, and can show what effect this has on health. Healthcare will thus become more personal and more effective.’

Which researcher has surprised you in the various collaborations? 

‘A good example is Frits Koning from the LUMC. He had brought a new technique to Leiden with which he could measure the presence of a set of 40 proteins in millions of individual cells. A little later, he came up with a new machine that could do the same thing, but on a slice of a tumour so that the cells were still in their original position. I had never seen anything like it before. Often, someone else points out a particular technique or science to you that advances your own work. That too is the power of collaboration.’

This article is part of a series in which we highlight the nine new Medical Delta professors. Click here for the other portraits that have been published so far. Marcel Reinders' research contributes to the Medical Delta AI for Computational Life Sciences scientific program.

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