Scientists, business leaders and healthcare professionals must collaborate to meet the demands of tomorrow; officials from the City of Utrecht and Utrecht Science Park explain how this is done in the city and region of Utrecht
When most people think about a healthy living environment they don’t think of big cities. But Utrecht is challenging all that. In fact, the city offers one of the healthiest and most sustainable living environments in the world; home to cutting-edge innovations that not only improve the health of those who live there, but their overall quality of life too. And Utrecht actually shares this innovation and knowledge with other cities around the globe. Having such a fertile foundation, the city finds it easy to attract talented people from all over the world, with entrepreneurs, impressive start-ups and investments finding their way to Utrecht, helping the city to thrive. Having such strong underpinnings has assisted in cultivating an environment that encourages healthy competition, improves overall living standards, and has cemented the city as one of the best places in the world to live – and this is just the beginning.
Brave new city
Of course it isn’t possible for there to be this sort of scientific and technological advancement without it affecting the way a society functions – and you can’t improve the functioning of a society without also improving the health and quality of life of the people who make it up. At Utrecht’s famous Science Park, world-leading research is being done in regenerative medicine and 3D-bioprinting, stem cells and organoids, cancer research and cure, One Health and One Medicine, early life and medical nutrition, serious and applied gaming, and smart sustainable cities.
Utrecht Science Park is ambitious in its sheer size and scale, as are the goals it sets itself. The facility spans more than 300 hectares, is home to 50,000 students and 22,000 employees – that’s roughly 21 percent of the entire population working in an area that takes up just three percent of the entire city.
Three high-quality knowledge institutes are the cornerstones of Utrecht Science Park: Utrecht University, HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht and the University Medical Center Utrecht conduct pioneering research in the areas of sciences, geosciences, social sciences, medicine and veterinary medicine. Together with leading research institutions, R&D companies and innovative start-ups they work tirelessly to ensure Utrecht continues to be a hub for healthy urban living.
So far, Utrecht Science Park has been highly influential in improving people’s health and general quality of life. So much so that the EU Commission’s regional competitiveness index for 2013 gave Utrecht, for the second time, the accolade of Europe’s most competitive region. The decision was based on how well the city performed in the areas of innovation, quality of institutions, infrastructure (including digital networks), and measures of health and human capital.
Leading by example
Utrecht has also become a leading centre of cancer research, diagnoses and treatment. The aim is to provide a personalised form of care, as cancer itself is a very heterogeneous disease, with multiple genetic variations. The availability of knowledge and expertise from the Hubrecht Institute, the University Medical Center Utrecht, Danone Nutricia Research and Utrecht University within a radius of 100 metres are the reasons the Princess Maxima Centre for Paediatric Oncology was established at Utrecht Science Park. By putting together all this expertise, care and research in one medical centre, the cure rate of children with cancer is estimated to increase from 75 to 95 percent.
A collaboration between two of these institutes, the Hubrecht Institute and the University Medical Center Utrecht, is in the process of creating an exciting new technology for the regeneration of tissue. The technology is based on a recent discovery by Hans Clevers, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University Medical Center Utrecht and the Hubrecht Institute. He found organs such as the gut contain stem cells that enable the constant regeneration of new tissue. His group developed a method of isolating the stem cells from different organs and growing them in a laboratory. The structures that are generated, so-called ‘organoids’, mimic the original tissue to a large degree. This discovery offers a promising new future in which it is possible to build new organs.
Many of the most deadly infectious diseases are those that can be transferred between humans and animals, known as ‘zoonoses’. A total of 75 percent of all new viruses come from animals and zoonotic diseases have been responsible for some of the world’s deadliest virus outbreaks, from the Spanish flu after the First World War, to the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
Research into such diseases is therefore of vital importance. Under the One Health programme, researchers at Utrecht Science Park are combining human and veterinary medicine in order to fight zoonoses. Such work is invaluable and, by collaborating on research in this manner, the chances of stopping future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, including Ebola, Q fever, bird flu and rabies are dramatically increased. Among the organisations involved in One Health are the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, CBS-KNAW Fungal Biodiversity Center, Artemis Research Institute for Wildlife Health, TNO Innovation for Life, and Wageningen University.
Utrecht Science Park isn’t just home to pioneering research, however. It is also where knowledge is put into practice, with a growing number of leading international companies finding their footing within its walls.
Health starts at home
The city isn’t just home to groundbreaking research; a big part of creating a healthy living environment is people taking steps to ensure they adopt a lifestyle that will enable them to live longer and more healthily. To assist people in doing that, local government, healthcare providers, businesses and educational establishments collaborate on various projects in order to establish a strong connection between primary care, welfare and prevention.
GPs in the Overvecht neighbourhood of Utrecht are working alongside physiotherapists, dietitians, podotherapists, local social-work teams and other healthcare professionals to give patients a more comprehensive care package. They also motivate their patients and provide them with the necessary tools to take greater responsibility for their own health.
One of these tools is called PAZIO, an eHealth platform that gives patients the opportunity to access various online care and welfare services. For example, patients can use the application to book appointments directly with their GP, request prescriptions, and start a dialogue with their GP.
One of the ways the city manages to cultivate an urban environment that fosters healthy living is through its burgeoning gaming industry, which has been instrumental in developing various applied games that can be used in people’s everyday lives.
The ‘Magic Table’, which can be used in every nursing home, is an interactive game for elderly people who suffer from severe dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Through animations, projected on a table with infrared sensors to detect movement of arms and hands, people can play and socialise.
Virtual Patient is a ‘serious game’ developed by Utrecht University that helps healthcare professionals communicate with individuals who suffer from a range of complex problems. The game gives caregivers the ability to practice conversing with clients who have multiple and complex issues before meeting with their clients.
With the help of incubators such as UtrechtInc, the city has a bright future ahead of it. So far, UtrechtInc has managed to inspire and encourage young, ambitious entrepreneurs to take their scientific knowledge and apply it to the real world.
Utrecht is already home to more than 400 exciting start-ups, working in areas from health and medtech to gaming and cleantech. With such a strong focus on entrepreneurship within its education system, along with the large amount of investment reaching Utrecht Science Park, the city will continue to be a world leader in creating innovative solutions for building healthy people, healthy minds and above all, healthy environments.