Semmelweis UniversityFollowing 250 years of tradition and shaping 21st-century trends – the future of Research, Development and Innovation at Semmelweis University

Following 250 years of tradition and shaping 21st-century trends – the future of Research, Development and Innovation at Semmelweis University

Over its 250 years of history, Semmelweis University has evolved into an important hub of medical and health sciences education, research and patient care in Hungary and in the Central-European region. The university is proud to have been home to numerous innovations from the first Hungarian surgery under anaesthetics, to laser tweezers, not to mention thousands of alumni, including Nobel-laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, who have contributed to the progress of mankind over the past 250 years. In our interview, Dr. Péter Ferdinandy, Vice-Rector for Science and Innovation talks about the future of Research, Development and Innovation at Semmelweis University.

Semmelweis University celebrates the 250th anniversary of its foundation. What does it mean for the university’s Research, Development and Innovation activities?

Celebrating its 250 years of tradition improving health sciences and fostering the legacy of Ignác Semmelweis by inspiring innovative thinking, the university is now looking to lay the foundations for the next quarter millennium. As we look back on the history of scientific research and innovation, we can see that science had served social needs until about 100 years ago. Then, scientific research slowly turned into a profession dealing with a number of disciplines that remain elusive to most people. Thus science has become distant and inaccessible for people not involved in scientific activities. Our aim is to transform the way we think of and do scientific research in order to make it more beneficial to society. Not only do we need to adapt to the changing social and economic demands, but lead the way in creating new processes. Semmelweis University’s vision is rooted in its power to innovate: to turn great ideas into products and services that will bring growth to the economy and prosperity to society. 

Research, Development and Innovation are one of the most important focal points of Semmelweis University’s development strategy. What research areas, projects are the most prominent elements of this strategy?

Semmelweis University’s development strategy in the field of RDI is based on an innovative approach of science. Semmelweis University already occupies a prestigious place in the Central and Eastern European region with excellent performance in education and scientific output. However, in order to best leverage the untapped potential of its exceptionally high citation index and academic publication activity, a new way of thinking is necessary. To strengthen our position as a leading research institution, we have to turn towards innovation by building upon the solid basis of excellent basic research. We have to achieve a paradigm shift in our notion of scientific research and embrace an innovative and entrepreneurial mind-set by reinforcing the role of intellectual property management and educating the lecturers and researchers of the future.
To ensure that our students receive the best of education, a new curriculum was introduced in the 250th anniversary year focusing on practical skills and thorough interdisciplinary knowledge. It is not enough to do science well, researchers have to know how to navigate in the world of science to increase their social and economic impact. Within the framework of the new curriculum a pilot elective course on innovation management for graduate and PhD students was introduced to reinforce entrepreneurial approach. Post-gradual education has also undergone changes and now, thanks to the MD/PhD Excellence Programme, students can enrol at the School of PhD Studies as early as four semesters before graduation, which promotes engagement in research early on.
The university’s RDI development strategy aims at increasing the amount of translational research, therefore we strive to harness the potential of our numerous clinical departments. To do this, we are continuously strengthening the involvement of our departments in clinical trials in all therapeutic fields, especially heart and vascular medicine, neurology, oncology, paediatrics, etc.
Our main focus, however, is channelling the results of the above efforts into building an innovation ecosystem. The flagship of this new ecosystem will be a Health Industry-Biotechnology Science Park, an umbrella organisation gathering entrepreneurs, investors, inventors and educational institutions, which also manages the existing and newly built research infrastructure. The initiative is to be realised in cooperation with Pázmány Péter Catholic University and the National University of Public Service to promote research, development and innovation-related commercial activity through collaborative research and strategic partnerships. 

 What is Science Park’s concept based on and what possibilities does it offer to domestic and international market players?

The challenges of the 21st century require that universities navigate their institutions closer to the industry and answer economic market needs more promptly by establishing wide-range industry collaborations from start-ups to multinational large companies. The mission of Science Park is to focus on areas of healthcare that have emerging relevance today and will be dominant in the near future. These are bioimaging, bionics, digital biomarkers and translational biotechnology. The RDI activities carried out within the framework of the interdisciplinary knowledge centre seek to address challenges of the health industry such as the development of novel therapeutics including advanced therapy medicinal products, digital medicine, imaging technologies, the cost-efficient operation of healthcare by diagnostic and therapy optimization, the dissemination and enhancement of portable and built-in mobile devices, the promotion of developmental activities related to personalised medicine as well as the further refinement of the use of artificial intelligence and related data security. 

The concept of Science Park targets two larger sectors of the health industry. On the one hand, small- and medium-sized businesses and university researchers can interact to build a think-tank facilitating the creation of innovations that can be adapted immediately for use. This will permit a flexible and more responsive framework for scientific research in a quickly changing landscape. Science Park will welcome research groups presenting projects that answer the demands set by future-oriented technologies and industrial sustainability. Science Park will play a huge role in making the implementation of research projects possible by providing the opportunity to set up spin-off and start-up companies.
On the other hand, Science Park aims to create close but flexible cooperation between market players of the health industry, companies of pharmaceuticals, medical technology and biotechnology, which will determine the directions of healthcare and health industry in the years to come. By bringing the most influential market players, innovative research projects and cutting-edge technologies under the same roof, Science Park will from an innovation ecosystem at the forefront of health industry and will provide an extensive network of researchers, SMEs and large enterprises.

How is education integrated into the RDI development strategy?

The operation of Science Park will require specialist knowledge, such as health industry related engineering (health engineer, bioengineer, bioinformatics) and quality assurance in addition to the thorough knowledge of the curricula in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and health sciences. The Central European Medicines Development Course is already running at Semmelweis University, incorporating quality assurance topics, and is to be upgraded to postgraduate level soon.
With regards to bioimaging, bionics, biomarkers and biotechnology, which are the focal points of Science Park, we plan to develop new courses in the forms of specialized further trainings, specializations or MSc programmes. The courses under development are to be implemented in an internationally competitive way in English by using online tools. The proposed courses include Biodata Analyst, Medical Image Processing, Medical Data Analysis, Human-Machine Interfaces, Medical Robotics and Innovation in Healthcare.

In the past few months, the world witnessed unprecedented actions taken in response to COVID-19. What role did Semmelweis University play in handling the epidemic and what further steps has it taken to explore preventive and therapeutic options?  

As a university specialising in health sciences and one of the largest health care providers in Hungary, Semmelweis University took up on a key role in the fight against the epidemic caused by the novel coronavirus. In addition to leading a nation-wide representative screening programme for COVID-19 (H-UNCOVER study) and treating infected patients, our departments and researchers have been actively looking for therapeutic options. One of our research groups made a discovery that may be a breakthrough in the treatment of pneumonia and tissue scarring. Based on the results, a Phase II clinical trial is being conducted on drug repositioning to allow timely treatment for patients affected by the coronavirus.
The university has also established a research consortium to support recently launched RDI activities in three main areas in the fight against the coronavirus. The projects are carried out in collaboration with the Eötvös Loránd Research Network and RDI companies affiliated to the university. The three areas of research seek to better understand the mechanism of viral infection, to test the efficiency of some drug candidates, to diagnose organ specific infections of the coronavirus by using state-of-the-art molecular diagnostic technologies and to unlock therapeutic options of drugs and drug candidates in the treatment of the cytokine storm.
In addition to conducting research projects and a clinical trial targeting the treatment of coronavirus patients, Semmelweis University is involved in the development of a portable ventilator designed specifically for the effective treatment of respiratory failure. Clinical trials are ongoing and the ventilator is planned to go in serial production at the end of the summer of 2020.

What is Semmelweis University’s vision for its RDI strategy?

With the establishment of Science Park merging scientific research and health industry, we expect developments that will improve medical care and the efficiency of research. Researchers and market players will be working in collaboration to give new momentum to bionics, medical technology and pharmaceutical developments that focus on transforming knowledge into relevant and beneficial innovations. Furthermore, Science Park will promote the creation of new technology-intensive start-up companies building on the knowledge base of universities and harnessing the technological background of industry players. A successful innovation eco-system will support the interoperability of knowledge and technology between small and medium-sized businesses, large corporations and universities with a global market outlook and will enable the generation of global trends in the health industry.

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