Theresa – you were one of the 24 participants of this year’s I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship. Could you give our readers a short overview of your career so far and introduce your project “organLife”?
Growing up in a family of building contractors, it was clear to me from the very beginning that I would pursue a technical training course. The Höhere technische Bundeslehr- und Versuchsanstalt in the field of structural engineering offered a large playground for mathematical and creative work. However, medicine and the human body exerted too much fascination on me, and so I decided to study human medicine and an initial study of architecture and civil engineering in Innsbruck after graduating. Early on during my studies, I was fascinated by transplantation medicine and so I began my scientific work in the D. Swarovski Research Laboratory of the local department for transplantation surgery, at that time still under the direction of Prof. Raimund Margreiter. For 10 years, my scientific work focused on hand transplantation. In doing so, I mainly investigated molecular processes that take place in the skin during rejection in order to develop new therapeutic approaches. After the successful completion of my studies in Innsbruck and a research stay at the Starzl Transplantation Institute of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, USA, I became head of the experimental research group for vascularised tissue transplantation at the D. Swarovski Research Laboratory in Innsbruck in 2012. Clinical work at the University Clinic for Visceral, Transplantation and Thoracic Surgery Innsbruck was followed by a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology. In 2019 I habilitated at the Medical University of Innsbruck with my work in the field of hand transplantation and ischemia/reperfusion research in the field of experimental general surgery and visceral surgery.
In the meantime, a major focus of transplantation surgery in Innsbruck, which is now successfully continued under the direction of Stefan Schneeberger, is improved and extended organ preservation outside the body.
Since 2018 I have been initiating and coordinating scientific projects in the field of Normothermal Machine Perfusion at the Innsbruck University Clinic for Visceral, Transplant and Thoracic Surgery and am responsible for their successful implementation and execution. In this context Stefan Schneeberger and I initiated the organLife project to establish a lighthouse project and centre of excellence for organ repair and organ regeneration at the Medical University of Innsbruck – the Organ Regeneration Center of Excellence Innsbruck.
Organ failure or a severe organ disease represents an acute life-threatening danger for humans. Mechanical replacement methods such as dialysis or biological replacement by transplantation are available for treatment. However, mechanical methods are not suitable for permanent replacement and there are far too few young, healthy organs available for transplantation. Treating organs outside the body offers a solution to this problem. This is made possible by the newly developed technique of machine perfusion, in which the removed diseased organ is connected to an artificial blood circuit outside the body. This technology offers the unique possibility of preserving and treating an organ under body-like conditions. The therapy of diseased donor organs as well as the patient’s own organs represents a lasting revolution in modern medicine.
At the organLife – Organ Regeneration Center of Excellence, Innsbruck, we want to treat/regenerate diseased organs in a targeted manner, and thus improve or restore their function. This should give back health and vitality to sick “own” organs and help to cover the demand for organs in the context of a life-saving transplantation.
What are the three most important skills you have acquired during the I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship and what challenges did you work on during the programme? What are your next steps?
During the Summer School I had the chance to learn from many inspiring personalities and experts. If I now have to pick out 3 points, it seems that the most important and highest priority to successfully complete and implement a project is to have a brilliant team around you! Because people invest in people they trust to successfully implement an idea – of whatever kind. And projects with the potential to change the world are often not trivial and simple, but highly complex, interdisciplinary and labour-intensive, and therefore require the know-how, expertise and commitment of many to be successful. I am proud that we at organLife unite a team of young, talented, highly motivated and best-trained doctors and scientists from various disciplines, who all pull together and share a vision – to treat diseased organs and thus heal them.
Another important knowledge of the Summer School I would consider to be the fact that you have to have “Excellence” – to put it in the words of Hermann Hauser. I can fully support this view. I also believe that this is a central point in order to finally implement a project and an idea successfully.
Thirdly, I have learned that it is important to have a vision – and to explain this vision in a way that everyone can understand. A vision does not always imply that you have the exact plan in your hands at that moment to achieve your goal. But a vision that has the potential to make a real difference for the future can in turn mobilise people to help realise it step by step.
During the I.E.C.T. – Summer School and the associated intensive discussion of a possible spin-off of our project in terms of commercial use, I was confronted with many exciting questions concerning the number of our potential “customers”, the “catchment area”, but also the costs of our “service”. In the course of the organLife project, however, sometimes very challenging aspects opened up, such as ethical questions, which need to be discussed and solved.
Our next steps include the installation of a platform for organ perfusion and preservation for the organs liver, kidney and lung at the Medical University of Innsbruck. In addition to establishing a specific protocol for organ quality analysis, we are currently working on extending the perfusion period from 24 hours to 7 days in order to open a window of opportunity for a possible therapy. As this will require a considerable increase in infrastructure and personnel over the next 2 years, we are also working on the acquisition of financial means to be able to implement this important step.
The I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship was offered this year for the first time as a completely digitalised programme. The I.E.C.T. – Network served as a platform and connected the participating start-ups with relevant actors such as experts, mentors, investors and companies. In your opinion, what opportunities arise as a result of this digitisation?
I think that especially the I.E.C.T. – Network, which you have access to as a participant of the Summer School and which you build up through this, is the most valuable part of this programme. Networking with companies and potential investors – at any time and anywhere in the world – can open up great opportunities. The fact that this year’s Summer School had to be held purely digitally has certainly promoted the aspect of digital contact and networking within the framework of the installed platform. Digital technologies make it possible to overcome geographical distances and time zones without any problems and thus allow easier, faster and less complicated access to a much larger and also more diverse circle of people. Nevertheless, small sessions also allow for an intensive exchange in discussions and targeted work. It can be assumed that the digital use of the platform of the I.E.C.T. – Network will gain in value and importance in the future.
Your participation was supported by the Tiroler Sparkasse with a fellowship ticket. This ticket supports the cooperation between start-ups and established companies. To what extent has this collaboration generated added value for you and your project?
The fellowship ticket and the associated participation in this programme not only gave me exciting insights and the challenges of an entrepreneur, but also brought our project organLife closer to a wider audience – be it in the context of the Summer School, through the presentation of the project at the Forum Alpbach or through reports in the media. In my opinion, it is very important to let the public know what exciting and future-changing projects are being worked on in science and research. Only in this way can the public be open-minded and tolerant towards them and their interest in a cause be awakened. Because the future can only be changed together….
Thanks for the interview!