Universiteit Utrecht

iPSpine – The veterinarian trying to solve the problem of low back pain

Interview with Professor Marianna Tryfonidou, from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Utrecht University

The iPSpine project was recently awarded €15 million under the Horizon 2020 programme, towards researching a solution for chronic lower back pain. The huge public-private consortium is comprised of 20 partners, and is coordinated by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Utrecht University. At the heart of this project is Professor Marianna Tryfonidou, and one could not tell its story without telling hers.

iPSpine was initiated in close collaboration with a core team of within the field of the spine. The project received a lot of attention when it was granted seemingly against the odds. Those who were involved in developing the project though, knew that this strong consortium and research proposal did not need to rely on luck to succeed.

The veterinarian who “got greedy”

An expert in speaking the different languages of academics and entrepreneurs alike, Marianna is a veterinarian (yes, you read that right), and is full of ideas for initiating research projects with potential healthcare impact. “At seven years old, I already said I wanted to be a veterinarian so I could help dogs and cats suffering from illnesses- that’s how it all started.”,Marianna tells us. “However, during my studies I realised that to have a real impact on society, focusing on dogs would not be enough and I got greedy in a way. I wanted to be a part of something dedicated to achieving substantial impact. 

Being trained as veterinarian in comparative aspects, I was more than awarethat by combining efforts we could impact both human and veterinary health.”

Seemingly against the odds

While back pain is the leading cause of disability and morbidity in adults across the globe, current treatments mean expensive invasive surgery and a long recovery road for patients, who never regain complete mobility. Research towards other treatments for back pain is not given much attention, despite its potential clinical impact, largely due to the lack of funding opportunities in this space.

“There tends to be more research focus on joints, but very limited attention on the spine”, Marianna explains, “patients with back pain are a bigger problem but fixing this problem is less attractive because the interventions are much more difficult and expensive. Companies are less interested in these therapies as they demand substantial investments from bench to bedside even though the clinical impact is bigger.”

The iPSpine consortium decided to tackle the problem of human back pain by developing an advanced therapy medicinal product, specifically, ICells (which are stem cells that are created artificially from adult cells e.g. skin cells) and smart biomaterials. A radical therapeutic strategy with the potential for substantial benefit, but with many challenges associated with turning them into an effective treatment for low back pain. A challenge that the iPSpine consortium agreed to accept.

Seemingly against the odds – tackling significant societal, healthcare and technical challenges – the iPSpine project proposal was granted. Furthermore, the project adopts a novel developmental biology approach and is led by a researcher with a veterinary background – a remarkable exception to the norm. This success, strange to the eyes of outsiders but not unexpected to those who were involved in iPSpine, is largely due to Marianna’s collaborative strengths, leadership skills, allied to a robust proposal where no detail was left unattended.

“When I first started preparing the application, I was not concerned with whether it would get granted or not. Most important for me was to focus on the quality of the project. When I started talking about it, there was a lot of scepticism towards the concept being coordinated by me, a recently appointed Professor. However, I like challenges and there was also a lot of support by people whose opinion I greatly value. We had an exciting and innovative idea. We started with 3 core partners, each a distinguished leader in their respective fields, and then we expanded. The funding  available made it possible to “think big” – so I addressed in the project all the aspects that would make it a good strategy.”

A strong consortium and proposal

“We took the lead in establishing the scientific members of the consortium ourselves because I had very specific ideas for the science and the methodologies that needed to be employed. Plus, I had the network.”,Marianna explains, “however, working with an expert (Catalyze) helped us to identify and attract some key partners who were missing from our consortium, especially in regulatory affairs expertise and programme management. Winning funding from the prestigious H2020 requires a special skill in not only writing about the scientific details of your research but telling a compelling story. We found that writing the story required a special skill that is very different from describing the scientific approach. As a scientist, you want to put a lot of knowledge in an application but it is vital to also tell the story of the societal problem, the ambition and the impact. Only 50% of the information I wanted to put in is there! Writing a winning Horizon 2020 application is an art. You need to play the game together and speak the language they want to hear – it’s not the buzzwords, but the content. Catalyze put a lot of work into this. You didn’t just make a statement, you need to substantiate it and Catalyze contributed a lot to the impact section.”

When the good news came

Marianna just started her holiday and was ready to disconnect for a week of vacation, when she decided to check her email for one last time. She tells us about this moment:

“I see this email from the European Commission, and I was reading it but I could not understand what was in there. Did we get funded?  A minute later I got a message from the consultant at Catalyze to look at my email. I told her, “I’m looking, does this mean, could it be…?” And then I started crying. I thought, this is really almost impossible to comprehend, we got funded! A dream come true, I was blasted.”

“I was appointed as Professor in February so this has been a great year for me in my professional life”, Marianna explains, “in this way I  can be independent, have my group and don’t need to think about finances, it’s great that I can focus on my scientific endeavours . Before this project, I was welll appreciated within my international network, but this is an extra confirmation.”

Catalyze and iPSpine

In 2016, Catalyze began the collaboration with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Utrecht. Jalal Es-Sbai, Catalyze co-founder, is very proud of this partnership. “We started by identifying the key research projects and building a tailor made funding strategy”, Jalal explains, “and the iPSpine project is a good showcase of the fruitful collaboration between Catalyze and the Utrecht University. We are looking forward to the next years in raising more funding for innovative projects. The combination of excellent researchers and experts in raising non-dilutive funding is a winning model.”


Awarded grant: Horizon 2020 SC1-BHC-09-2018: Innovation platforms for advanced therapies of the future (15 M€)

For more information about Professor Marianna Tryfonidou visit the website of Utrecht University.


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