Read the interview Adriano has recently released for us.
Adriano, tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your former role.
My undergraduate degree was in microbiology and following that I did a PhD in Medicine, researching on aspects of cardiovascular pathology under the supervision of Professor Michael Davies, a world leading authority in atherosclerosis. This was the foundation for my interest in pathophysiology and my first experience of working across disciplines, both within medicine as well as across bench science and medicine. My postdoctoral studies remained focused on the cardiovascular system, but moved me technically from cell biology studies, through molecular biology and ultimately to leading my own molecular genetics group in Oxford. From there, I was recruited into the pharmaceutical industry where I spent 13 years, before leaving in 2009 to set up independently as a consultant on projects bridging academia and industry. At this point, I was approached and invited to direct the German national flagship research programme, the Virtual Liver Network (VLN, www.virtual-liver.de ), funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to the tune of €50M over 5 years. The management of over 200 contributing scientists, in 36 independent academic and industrial institutions distributed across Germany, working on 44 projects called on my experience managing teams across disciplinary, cultural and geographic boundaries gained from my time in industry. The VLN’s objectives have been to use computational modelling tools to create models representing liver physiology that operate across scales of space and time, that create a connection from the molecular level through to the clinic. The programme is unique not just for that, but also for the level of funding awarded and the approach to managing a complex network that has been less like a consortium and more like a very large, distributed, multidisciplinary team.
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When did you start to engage with the VPH initiative?
I knew about the VPH Network of Excellence, funded under the European Framework 7 Programme, whilst in industry as one or two members of my department participated in some of the meetings and projects at that time, but I personally was not involved. My introduction to the VPHi started towards the end of 2010 through meeting the previous Executive Director and subsequently deciding to have the VLN join as a contributing member with a seat on the Board. As far as I am aware, the VLN was the first example that brought both “bottom-up”, mechanistic, “classical” systems biology, and “top-down”, physics driven, physiological modelling together under one programme, and this injected representation of the former approach into an organisation that was largely known for its strengths in the latter.
Why have you decided to play a more active role and take over this position?
Well, to be honest, I was “persuaded” to take on the role of Executive Director by my colleagues on the VPHi Board, whose unanimous and unquestioning belief in my ability to do it was at once both highly flattering and humbling. Their persuasive arguments that my track record and background, spanning industry, academia and complex team management, were all essential to the tasks the Institute and its Board needed to address in the next phase of its evolution, were compelling. Nonetheless, it was a difficult decision for me for a number of reasons, not least because Marco Viceconti is going to be a very hard act to follow, but one that I privately relished because of my long standing commitment to see Modelling and Simulation approaches playing and increasingly important role in 21st Century medicine. I see the position as a unique opportunity to do precisely that, with the support and active participation of the Board and the membership of the VPHi.
What skills or attributes do you believe you could bring to the Institute?
If the Institute is to progress from its current position, both the Board and I believe that professional management capable of representing it at the highest political, scientific and commercial level will be needed to steer things in the right direction. The multidisciplinary nature of the approaches that are encompassed within the VPHi, coupled with the direct focus on having an impact on the clinic in one way or another, are elements that I can understand, having worked all my professional life across the boundary between bench science and clinical medicine and, latterly, having been responsible for prototyping, implementing and establishing a new department of Systems Biology in industry. This latter role was largely at a senior managerial level, where I had to develop skills in person and complex team management, and where I gained a lot of experience influencing Board level managers. The experience and managerial skills I have gained from working on both sides of the scientific fence, in academia and industry, will be very important in driving forward the next stage in the development of the Institute, where we will need to reinforce our links with industry, building on those that already exist, as well as our interactions with medical professionals, to ensure that our work remains relevant to the needs of healthcare in its broadest sense.
What are you looking forward to in your new role?
It has been noted more than once that my track record describes a path that is defined by taking on challenges and risks, rather than a route favouring the easy option. Whilst it’s true to say for many who have chosen a career in science, where innovative, blue-skies thinking is fundamental, the career path is both risky and challenging, some of the choices I have made in the past could be seen as riskier and more challenging than most. Taking on the Directorship of the VPHi represents another such challenge, and one that I relish. The opportunities that exist for the great work being done by members of the Institute to have an impact on medicine and healthcare, both directly and through the industries that service and support it are huge. Given that my personal interests have always focused on bridging science and medical practice, such that the latter can improve through the innovations explored and tested in the former, this new role, directing an initiative that has this objective at its heart, is ideal. I am looking forward immensely to working with the Board and the membership to bring the ambitions of the VPHi to fruition.
Do you have already any short-term plans in store?
Over the last couple of years, the VPHi has been very active at the European level in advocating a greater focus on the application of in silico medicine approaches in research and health policy, resulting in a European Parliament Resolution on the E-Health Action Plan 2012-2020 recognising VPH as an example of a successful eHealth solution, and calling for the Commission and Member States to support its activities. My short term plans focus on maintaining this momentum at the political level and using it to raise the profile of the Institute. To achieve that, we have to work hard to promote our identity, our purpose and objectives. Alongside this we have to provide a compelling reason for industry to become more engaged and contribute financially to create a sustainable foundation for the activities we intend to pursue. This will be all about the creation of a “corporate brand” that highlights what VPH is all about and addresses the question: “What is the purpose of the VPHi and what are it’s objectives? What’s different/unique about the VPHi? And why should I get involved and/or invest in it?”
A second initiative that is emerging from the involvement of the VPHi in the European CSA project, "Avicenna: A Roadmap for in silico Clinical Trials” is the creation of an industrial Alliance. This will have a specific focus on working with industrial partners to draft a proposal to the European Commission for the creation of a Public Private Partnership, a process that has already attracted interest from a number of industries. I see this as a real opportunity to increase our visibility to small and large industries engaged in healthcare, as well as regulators and other stakeholder groups.
What would you like to achieve in the long run?
Following on from my last answer, clearly one objective is to ensure that the Institute is financially viable and fit for purpose, securing its future. My personal vision is that the VPHi should become recognised as the authoritative, representative voice of the modelling and simulation community at large that is engaged in healthcare research and development in its broadest sense. As such, I would hope we could become seen and be approached as advocates, capable of informing, educating and promoting VPH technologies, as well as offering a single voice to lobby in Brussels and elsewhere.
What potential do you see in VPH? And how do you imagine the VPH initiative 10 years from now?
As I have said already, the breadth of knowledge, skills and technologies that are held in the VPHi community has the potential to revolutionise medical practice, both directly and through improvements in the delivery of effective and safe biomedical products. As we stand today, the level of understanding and acceptance of these approaches remains limited and, at best, constructively sceptical, and it will take time for this to change fundamentally. We are on the way to achieving that change, and my hope is that within 10 years, examples offering hard evidence of the value of these approaches to modern medicine will be sufficiently compelling to establish VPH technologies firmly in routine practice.
What are the roadblocks the VPH should overcome in order to become a reality?
Even though there are plenty of examples that show that modelling and simulation technologies can help to tackle questions of complexity in biology and medicine, there remains a significant reluctance to embrace them routinely. My personal view is that this has a lot to do with the early separation of the theoretical and experimental disciplines involved in its practice, creating technical and skills boundaries that are difficult to overcome in mature, established researchers that may not be accustomed to multidisciplinary thinking. Equally important is the lack of visibility of genuine success stories demonstrating the power of these approaches that are sufficiently compelling to persuade politicians and industry of its true value and potential. The consensus is that it’s not considered “ready for prime time”, or reduction to routine practice. The road to acceptance of VPH technologies is education, clear channels of communication with an unambiguous message and the ability to present examples of genuine impact on topics relevant to healthcare.
We also face challenges from competing initiatives targeting the problems of modern healthcare, which are arguably simpler to understand and accept, and which have gained a lot of political momentum. It is incumbent upon the VPH community to face the challenge by establishing a voice and an identity, as I mentioned earlier, that can be used to highlight why the VPH cannot be ignored, and demonstrate why it must have a place at the core of biomedical research and development and clinical practice.
Would you like to say anything in particular to our members?
My message to the membership is simply…. Be gentle with me and don’t expect too much too fast! I have a lot to learn, but I know that within the Board and the VPH community I can call on the experts to educate me, fill in the huge gaps in my knowledge and experience, and support me in building on the successes achieved under Marco’s leadership.
And to the former VPHi Director, Prof Viceconti?
Marco has done a phenomenal job in steering the VPH through the transition to become a not-for-profit organisation. His in-depth understanding of the science and the politics is something I shall find very hard to match, but I know he’s there to offer advice as and when I need it. It was Marco who introduced me to the Institute, persuaded me to get involved and most recently suggested that I consider taking over from him. I just hope that you don’t live to regret it Marco! Thank you for what you have done bringing the Institute to where it is and for having the confidence in my ability to take over the Leadership. I’ll do my very best to look after your baby and help it grow from infancy into adolescence, but hopefully without the troublesome teenage tantrums!!