Professor Clemens van Blitterswijk - 2023 Acta Biomaterialia Gold Medal Recipient
Professor Clemens van Blitterswijk - 2023 Acta Biomaterialia Gold Medal Recipient

The recipient of the 2023 Acta Biomaterialia Gold Medal is Professor Clemens van Blitterswijk, Distinguished Professor at Maastricht University, The Netherlands.

After graduating as a Cell Biologist at Leiden University in 1982 he defended his PhD thesis on artificial ceramic calcium phosphate implants at the same University in 1985. This early work was already recognized by several national and international awards and gave him insight into the  mechanisms of bone bonding, biodegradation and the interactions between materials and host in an infected environment.

While initially using tissue culture of mesenchymal stem cells for biocompatibility testing, it became evident that the cultured tissue (mineralized bone tissue) may actually serve as a bone substitute by itself. This became the main focus of the research group from the early 1990’s, thus becoming one of the first movers in the field of tissue engineering in general and bone tissue engineering, specifically. The first clinical trials of bone were not as good as suggested by earlier animal experiments but they gave insights into the hurdles that needed to be overcome in order to make tissue engineering clinically applicable. In the early stages of the tissue engineering efforts, the group around Prof. van Blitterswijk was convinced that the cell was key to clinical success, much more so than the scaffold material. However, it became clear over time that the material component was at least as important. This triggered a research line on osteoinductive scaffolds that continues until today.

Nevertheless,  Prof.  van Blitterswijk and his coworkers, in the early 2000’s, were dissatisfied by the inefficient way in which new biomaterials were developed. In general, small series of materials would be assessed over several years in a few models to test hypotheses for better material performance. If that didn’t work it would start all over again, losing precious time. It was the groups’ vision that, in view of the complex nature of material/recipient interactions and the relatively limited fundamental knowledge on material performance in a biological setting, this process was at best suboptimal. This led to the concept of Materiomics, where millions of material surface structures would be designed as the basis of a library from which thousands would be selected to be tested in high throughput screening, using the principles of machine learning. Work which these days is still the main focus of the group.

Similar to the Materiomics approach, which embraced, rather than denied, the lack of predictability of material performance in a biological setting, the group in parallel ventured into the area of self assembly and self organization to build 3D tissues in high throughput. Again, the concept was that the currently available fundamental scientific knowledge was insufficient to efficiently and predictably guide tissue formation and that it would be beneficial to rather trigger this by having the tissues organize themselves by only few clues; clues that could be discovered by high throughput testing. This, more recently, led to the group being at the very forefront of synthetic embryo research while building complex mouse embryo like structures (blastocysts) in vitro in high throughput without the use of either sperm cells or oocytes, using the principles of self organization. This field is currently developing very fast internationally and it may well contribute to the advance of regenerative medicine in many ways.

During his career Professor Clemens van Blitterswijk has been a strong proponent of the necessity of active collaboration between university researchers and industry in order to efficiently bring technology to patients. As such, he acted as founder or cofounder of many university spin-offs and investment funds. He is very proud to have been allowed to serve as the catalyst for the scientific career of a substantial number of  individuals who have successfully built groups of their own at many locations over the world and he is very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with so many smart young scientists.

Professor Van Blitterswijk will receive the Acta Biomaterialia Gold Medal at the Society for Biomaterials meeting to be held in San Diego, CA, April 19-22, 2023.