Working together to train and empower the next generation of biomedical researchers

ETH Zurich and Roche are joining forces in Basel to advance the development of new methods that facilitate the search for medicines. Together, they will train specialists for the biomedical challenges of our time.
Scientists involved in the new programmes will benefit from the synergy effects of the collaboration between ETH Zurich and Roche. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Gian Marco Castelberg)

In brief

  • ETH Zurich and Roche will enrol up to 20 doctoral students and up to 20 postdoctoral fellows in joint research programmes over the next three to four years.
  • These researchers will have access to infrastructure and expertise of both partners.
  • Thematically, the focus will be on the development and application of cell- and gene-based human model systems as well as research into new therapies.

ETH Zurich and Roche are to collaborate more closely in two new research and training programmes. The focus of this collaboration is on the development and application of new methods in bioengineering and new human cell- and gene-based model systems. Both partners expect these future technologies will help them better examine, understand and influence the molecular mechanisms of healthy and diseased human organs. After all, such models may represent powerful tools in the search for new molecular targets for potential treatments and in testing the efficacy of various drugs.

“This kind of collaboration between academia and industry is unique,” says Vanessa Wood, Vice President Knowledge Transfer and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich. “It enables ETH Zurich’s world-class research on biomedicine to translate into the development of therapies for the benefit of patients.”

The hub of research collaboration will be Basel, home to ETH Zurich's Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering, Roche's Pharma Research and Early Development and its new Institute of Human Biology. These units are at the centre of the research cooperation.

Harnessing the synergy effects

There are two new research programmes; one aimed at doctoral students, the other at postdoctoral fellows. The plan is to enrol up to 20 doctoral students and up to 20 postdoctoral fellows in the programmes over a provisional period of three to four years. These scientists will work together with colleagues from ETH Zurich and Roche at the partners’ respective locations. This will give them access to both partners’ expertise and infrastructure and allow them to acquire specific knowledge from the academic world as well as the pharmaceutical industry.

"Roche and ETH’s unique capabilities paired with our strong networks of experts will enable us to speed up innovation and address existing and upcoming challenges in translational medicine. We are convinced that through our partnership and collaboration, we will attract and work with some of the best researchers in the world,” says Hans Clevers, Head of Pharma Research and Early Development at Roche.

ETH Zurich and Roche are supporting the two research programmes with the knowledge and expertise of their employees as well as with their research infrastructure. Roche will fully fund the doctoral and postdoctoral positions as well as the joint research projects.

Research on organoids

Doctoral students in the programme will have the opportunity to learn and develop new tools and methods in human biology, molecular, cell and tissue engineering, and big data analytics. “Our new strong partnership with Roche empowers future leaders in bioengineering and translational medicine,” says Professor Daniel Müller, Head of the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich.

Research on human cellular model systems are already important research pillars of both the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich and Roche's Pharma Research and Early Development. Such cellular model systems include the 3D tissue culture that uses what are known as organoids. These are tissue structures a few millimetres in size, typically consisting of a few thousand cells. Organoids have a similar tissue structure and function to the organs of the human body. This means that they are particularly suitable for studying molecular mechanisms in healthy and diseased human organs and for creating complex in vitro models for diseases.

Models for neurological conditions

For example, the new collaboration aims to create cell culture models for neurological conditions and for intestinal diseases. What’s more, there are plans to further develop organoid technology in general and use automation to combine it with modern genome analysis methods and microscopy techniques. This includes methods so precise that they allow researchers to study individual cells. Finally, newly developed machine learning algorithms will make it easier to evaluate the large amounts of data such studies generate.

All this will help researchers better understand the differences between normal cells and organs and those that have been altered by disease. It will also provide them with a more economical means of using high-throughput methods to analyse the cells and tissues of such in vitro disease models and test the efficacy of potential drugs – without having to use animal experiments.

New methods for gene therapy

The postdoctoral programme will focus on basic and applied research in the field of gene-, cell-, and organoid-based model systems and therapies. This includes, for example, the development of organoids as model systems for research into ophthalmological pathologies or neuroinflammation in neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, methods for gene therapy are being developed with which DNA segments can be administered in an organ-specific manner for therapeutic purposes.

Applications are now open for the first positions in the doctoral programme. The projects in the programme for postdocs will be published at a later date.