In the interview he talks about the opportunities that arise with the joint centre of ETH Zurich and the University of Basel.
Prof. Müller, can you explain the basic idea behind the new centre?
A: At the BRCCH, we want to develop new methods and digital innovations for worldwide use in paediatrics that can also be used in countries with limited resources. The centre’s focus is on the areas of diabetes, infectious diseases/immunology, regenerative surgery and heart and lung diseases.
What is new about the BRCCH is that it does not support individual projects, but that groups of researchers and clinicians work together to develop comprehensive solutions. This means that money will not only be distributed for research projects, but everything from the medical problem to the effect, i.e. the healing of as many children as possible, is covered.
We often have the situation that we would achieve a lot with very simple methods if only the specific knowledge was there.
“We often have the situation that we would achieve a lot with very simple methods if only the specific knowledge was there.“
What is ETH Zurich’s contribution to the centre?
A: We bring in a very strong research and engineering aspect. We have a lot of knowledge in the areas of artificial intelligence, big data, disease modelling and cell-based engineering.
Another area in which ETH Zurich can make a strong contribution is sensor-based technologies being developed at the Department of Health Sciences. Mobile devices can be used to track health-related parameters. In Tanzania, one of the first countries we will start working with, the mobile network is much better developed as you would think.
Can you already say something about specific projects that will be tackled first?
A: What we do is very diverse. There are some projects that can already show results in a short time. My colleague Sai Reddy (Professor of Systems and Synthetic Immunology at ETH Zurich), for example, has developed an efficient and rapid method for developing and producing antibodies against the Ebola virus in the record time of two weeks. This method can also be applied to other viral infectious diseases that require antibodies.
One of the first clinical applications will take place in Tanzania. If a new infectious disease spreads there, it will be localized. Afterwards, our computer scientists will take over the modeling.
What exactly does that mean?
A:They analyse how a disease spreads and assess whether it can become a major threat. They estimate how quickly you have to react and whether it is worth starting an entire research stream*.
First the pathogen and then the antibodies that recognise it have to be identified or developed. This is done by analyzing Big Data. Antibodies and vaccine serum are produced as a next step. This can happen very quickly.
What are the challenges posed by the fact that a large part of research takes place abroad?
A: It is very time-consuming to create the legal basis for the collection of data, especially abroad. I never thought this would be such a hurdle. Fortunately, there is already a strong cooperation with Tanzania via the Swiss Tropical Institute (Swiss TPH), so much has already been achieved. If we had to start from scratch, it could take a long time.
Another problem in the developing countries is not only to recognize diseases and to get to the patient, but also to teach people, for example, that they have to take medication regularly. On the one hand, this can be tackled by educating people. On the other hand, we try to develop healing methods that no longer require medication, but maybe only one or two treatments. A diabetes research group at ETH Zurich has already shown in mice that the reprogramming of diseased diabetes cells can work, which in the long term could make taking medication unnecessary.
When can the first results be expected at the centre?
A: There are certainly solutions that can be implemented in a few years’ time. Others are only slowly entering the clinical phase, so it will certainly take another eight to ten years before we can expect results.
From a scientific point of view, what is the most exciting aspect of the centre?
A: From the very beginning, I was motivated by the fact that we can do something for children in developing countries. Finally, we have the chance to really help with our research and to improve the situation of many children worldwide.
“Finally, we have the chance to really help with our research and to improve the situation of many children worldwide.”
This fact is the greatest motivation for all colleagues involved in the centre. In addition, all the methods we use can, in principle, also be applied to children in Switzerland in the future and, in the long term, even to adults. It would be my dream to use the synergies and to open another centre in the future, which would translate the enormous potential of Biosystems Engineering into Translational Medicine. Switzerland could benefit from this and take the leading position worldwide.
*A sequence of research projects leading to the development and implementation of a new health technology.