29 June 2020
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BBMRI.nl interview series: Erik Steinfelder

In order to showcase the variety of work in BBMRI.nl, we dedicate special news items to BBMRI.nl investigators. We ask them about their work for BBMRI.nl. What excites and challenges them the most, especially during the present COVID-19 pandemic? And how do they see the future for our activities?

Erik Steinfelder, chair of the PPAC (photo taken by “Studio Fleur Janssen”)

What is your job title and what does your day-to-day job imply?
Currently I am the Biobanking Market Development Director at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Here I support colleagues and the biobank customers globally with a variety of solutions to collect, store and use specimens. In addition, I write and present about best practices and my experiences in biobanking.

What is the focus of your work within the BBMRI.nl project?
Biobanks play a crucial role in the prevention and research towards new treatments of certain diseases. To build unique collections of human specimens and associated clinical data, you depend on the willingness of patients/donors to participate. Within BBMRI.nl I am chairing the Patient and Public Advisory Council to make sure the patient voice is heard, the general public is aware of what we are doing and how biobanks can benefit of them, and vice versa.

How does this relate to your other work/projects/activities?
I am a biobank enthusiast and have been privileged to see many biobank initiatives around the globe over the last 10 years. Sharing expertise and making connections between the different stakeholders like other biobankers, policymakers, researchers, clinicians and industry is in both roles crucial to further increase the usage of the available sample collections to the benefit of the patient.

What do you enjoy the most about your work on the project?
It is very rewarding to see that you can make an impact with a group of people that has one overarching goal, but completely different (scientific) backgrounds. We are of course an advising body, but still it is good to see that there is room for input, discussion and evaluation from a patient/donor perspective.

What is challenging about your work?
You see a lot of people focused on developing new techniques, sharing fantastic visions for the mid- and long-term future and what the world is going to look like in 2030. What we, however, seem to miss is to actually use what has already been developed to its full potential today. Innovation is needed and crucial, for example, to tackle complex diseases and treatments in the future, no question about it; but let’s not forget there is a need for support, medication and solutions with the things that are in reach already.

What do you think is the importance of the project for the wider field of data sharing and health research?
Helping to create the conditions and the safe environment to drive life science research, respecting the ethical and legal aspects is paramount and one of the real added values of BBMRI.nl to the bigger picture, I think. It is nice to collect and store, but the real impact can be made by actually using the material. This will further benefit prevention initiatives, drug discovery and at the same time the sustainability of biobanks.

What makes BBMRI.nl unique in your view?
“If you want to get things done – ask the Dutch” is phrase I hear often and couldn’t be more true for BBMRI.nl. They were at the absolute start of creating an infrastructure that supports and enables research around biobanking in the Netherlands. Via a variety of ELSI helpdesk, the knowledgebase and other services, there is real tangible support on a strategic and operational level for the biobank community.

Which BBMRI.nl product or accomplishment would you highlight as deserving more attention, and why?
Academia and Biotech need high-quality samples that are stored under reliable conditions. Unfortunately, they are not always aware of the BBMRI.nl biobank catalogue with over 200 bio- and data collections listed. This is such a great resource and shows in an organized format the rich collections available, would save so many researchers months of searching and also supports to further increase the use of stored samples.

How do you foresee the future for the BBMRI.nl activities?
BBMRI.nl was early to acknowledge where the strengths were, but also to look for partners to further increase impact. The initiatives around Health-RI support this approach and are a potential role model for other European countries.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work?
In the last 10 years I was travelling around the world for over 80% of the time to meet with very interesting people and discuss biobanking. I still connect and discuss, but now in a completely digital environment using multimedia tools, like so many others. I miss the direct contact, seeing somebodies’ emotions and body language in discussions and the more informal parts of meetings.

How have you adapted to the new circumstances created by the pandemic?
When I was not travelling, I already used to work from home, so that was not really an issue. I am lucky to have a nice home office with the right tools to get the job done, I only invested in a better camera. I kept my normal routines in place and tried to have a regular daily schedule, but also made sure I could have some flexibility. If something doesn’t go as planned, I have a 15 min walk or support the kids with their homework and then continue. The fact that I can have dinner with the family now every day is a real bonus.

What newly emergent opportunities do you see as created by the present COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic showed again the importance of scientific research and especially the need for biobanking. To understand the virus, work on faster diagnosis or vaccines, in every case you need positive samples and patient data around treatments protocols, disease severity, duration, outcome etc. The sample part is one aspect, taking into account the ethical and legal part for the patient - an important other one.