In 2006, there were 34,706 full-time employees in Flanders working on research and development (R&D). In 2018, that count had reached 53,933 employees: a 55% rise. This reflects a strong climate of research and innovation in Flanders – and, by extension, across Belgium. The same applies at SCK CEN. This is one of the things depicted in the ‘Highlights 2019’, annual report, which the research centre published several months ago. The key question remains, however: how will the intended innovation land in society? A look ahead with Pascal De Langhe, Director of Business Development & Support at SCK CEN.
Engineers from SCK CEN built ISOL@MYRRHA’s target container: a kind of oven that can reach 2400°C. In this ‘oven’, SCK CEN will produce radioisotopes for medical applications and fundamental research from 2027. Scientists there have bulldozed a world record with a large-scale corrosion experiment. And the research centre helped develop a technology for measuring radiation doses without a dosimeter. SCK CEN scaled new heights in scientific terms in 2019. What now?
Pascal: “That's right. We have a great many assets we can use to make a social impact with that huge potential. Of course, you can't make an impact on your own. Innovation needs to have a place in the market and/or in production chains. That makes it very important to synchronise our scientific activities with the market. We do this by entering into dialogue with actors in the field.”
Who are these actors?
Pascal: “That's very broad: ranging from the energy sector to the industrial and medical sector. With MEDOC, we've developed a great tool that can help nuclear actors dismantle their installations. In the pharmaceutical sector, we're looking at both big and small pharma. For these kinds of actors, we have to understand what kind of research programmes they're aiming for. What issues do they want to resolve? What stage is their research at? How do our lines of research fit in with this? I'm referring to both the content and the timing, the latter being particularly important.”
Why is this timing so crucial?
Pascal: “Take the terbium-161 research, for example. Terbium-161 looks like one of the radioisotopes of the future, but is it actually? The pharmaceutical sector is currently scrutinising this. If the results are good, the amount of research will increase. That's beyond dispute, but the availability of terbium-161 mustn't curb that dynamic. That's why we, as a certified supplier, need to anticipate things in good time. Knowing what's going on with those actors makes a key difference to that. What radioisotopes do they need? And in what quantities? When do they expect demand to rise? With testing structural materials too, we need to know how far along the research centres or industrial actors are. That way, we can determine when to make our contribution. The facilities and experts at SCK CEN are ready to keep exploring new directions along with partners, for their benefit.”
Do external partners determine SCK CEN's scientific agenda, then? Does that harmonisation only go one way?
Pascal: “Not at all! SCK CEN is well-known for ‘out of the box’ thinking and exploring the unknown as pioneers. Our fundamental research has already uncovered countless underlying mechanisms. This is a treasure trove of information for optimising products or methods or for testing why the desired effect hasn't materialised. In short: our work is the foundation for our partners to build upon.”
So, is all that knowledge just up for grabs?
Pascal: “As a knowledge institute, we naturally make sure the knowledge we've built up stays protected, through patents for example. Anything that isn't protected can be copied by anyone. This makes it less interesting to the industry to start working with that method or technology that's been developed. It would be a shame if society missed out on useful applications because of that. The protection of intellectual property rights is a major pillar throughout the academic world.”
Is there a concrete case in store for 2020?
Pascal: “We signed a new public-private partnership with the National Institute for Radio Elements (IRE) to strengthen our contribution to the battle against cancer. The production of lutetium-177 is part of that partnership. That radioisotope is very promising for the treatment of prostate cancer, which is responsible for 90,000 deaths in Europe every year. And the production of Lu-177 is only the first stage! We'll also be making major strides in other fields, including dismantling. We hope to build further on that with partners.”
Only the first stage, other fields, etc. The urge to add value is clearly palpable. How do you maintain the balance between adding value on the one hand and allocations on the other?
Pascal: “SCK CEN has only one goal in mind: developing innovative applications for society. Making the greatest possible difference with one of the smallest elements on Earth – the atom. Giving back to society by turning knowledge into action. The NURA project is a brilliant example of that. We have the necessary knowledge and unique infrastructure at our disposal to develop the next generation of therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals. We need to gather sufficient financial means to be used as a tool in order to complete our mission. Adding value or allocations? For me, it's not an either/or question.”
Finally, how can interested parties reach you?
Pascal: “By completing the contact form below! (laughs) We'll then get in touch with you as soon as we can. Alternatively, we might meet at an (online) trade show!”
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