Ľudmila Kvašňovská is a 4th year student at the English Bilingual Grammar School in Čadca. In 2022, she went through the ICRC Academy weekend seminar, which started her journey into science. In this interview, she reveals how she made her way from her hometown of Staškov in northern Slovakia, through the ICRC Academy and an internship in one of our research teams, to the forefront of the Slovak Secondary School Vocational Activity (SOČ) competition.

Photo: Ľudmila Kvašňovská

Photo: Ľudmila Kvašňovská

How did you find out about the ICRC Academy?

A friend recommended the ICRC Academy seminar to me, which she herself had previously attended.

How do you rate your participation? What did it give you?

What I appreciated the most was the opportunity to intern at a top research center while still in high school. I gained a lot of experience from planning experiments to analyzing and interpreting results. Moreover, I worked in a great team and had an amazing mentor, Ing. Petru Lázničkovou, Ph.D. I would definitely recommend an internship at the ICRC to anyone with a passion for science and research.

What did you do in your research?

I was investigating potential biomarkers, i.e. measurable indicators, of chronic inflammation associated with aging. These included inflammatory cytokines, soluble CD163 protein and free mitochondrial DNA in human plasma. I was able to find that the soluble protein sCD163 could be used for early diagnosis of chronic inflammation in the elderly and thus prevent the development of various chronic diseases. This protein is present in blood plasma and is produced by immune cells when inflammation occurs in the body.

Photo: Ludmila at work in the lab

Photo: Ludmila at work in the lab

Why did you choose this particular area of research, what made you decide to do it?

I was already interested in the field of immunoregulation, which is the study of the properties and regulation of the immune system. I liked it so much that I was happy to accept the offer to join Dr. Frič’s Cellular and Molecular Immunoregulation team at the ICRC.

Was the internship time consuming?

The internship lasted 4 months from August to December 2022. In total, I spent more than 70 hours in the labs.

What are your future plans? Are you considering a scientific career?

It was through the ICRC Academy that I realised where I want to take my career. I will be applying to study medicine next year and I would very much like to pursue a scientific career alongside my studies and work. I have also participated in the Slovak SOČ with my research project that I carried out within the ICRC.

Please tell us more about the SOČ.

It is a competition in which high school students can create a professional paper on a chosen topic. They have a supervisor with whom they consult their results. They then have to defend their work publicly in the various rounds of the competition. I see this as a great opportunity to develop a project with an interesting topic that is really similar to the level of a bachelor’s or master’s thesis. I have always wanted to try working in a research centre and share my results further, and the ICRC Academy and the SOČ have made this possible.

How did you do in the SOČ?

My project made it to the national final, which took place on 26-28 April 2023. I competed for the Healthcare and Pharmacology category, where 16 projects from all over Slovakia advanced from the regional rounds, and the competition was really high. In addition to the presentation, there was also a debate with the expert evaluation committee, which I had no problem with thanks to the ICRC Academy, and I ended up winning. Unfortunately, my category will not continue from the national round, but I plan to compete with my project at the AMAVET Science and Technology Festival in the autumn, so my competition is definitely not over yet.

How do you spend your free time?  

Apart from science, I am actively involved in The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award (DofE for short). The aim of the programme is to promote the holistic development of young people’s abilities through long-term and regular activities in several areas: e.g. developing new skills, exercise or volunteering. Participants can receive an internationally recognised certificate – Bronze (minimum 6 months of performance), Silver (minimum 12 months of performance) and Gold (minimum 18 months of performance). My focus at the gold level is primarily on German language study. In the sports category, I am involved in gymnastics and acrobatics, and as part of my volunteer work I run gymnastics classes for children at a local dance club. I also like to exercise and I really enjoy studying languages and art.

Thank you for the interview and I wish you continued success in science and other activities!

Author: Marta Vrlová, M.A., MPH, Senior PR Specialist ICRC, marta.vrlova@fnusa.cz.

Media contact: Ing. Jiří Erlebach, Head of PR and Marketing Dpt, FNUSA Spokesperson, +420 543 182 006. jiri.erlebach@fnusa.cz.

He is 43 years old and holds 4 ERC grants. Since January, he has been working at the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC) of the St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno and the Faculty of Medicine of Masaryk University, where he is currently building his research team. In our interview we talked not only about what brought him to the ICRC, but also about the importance of scientific mobility or writing ERC projects.

Photo: Adam Williamson

Photo: Adam Williamson

You studied electrical engineering, but now you’re a neuroscientist. Was that the plan from the beginning, or did it just happen?

At the beginning of my career, I never thought that I would one day be a full-time neuroscientist. But I certainly couldn’t do what I do today if I didn’t have the education I have. I have a degree in theoretical electrical engineering. I progressed from being an engineer through many interesting research topics to neuroscience and focused on applying new technology to clinical research.

The field shift was mainly made possible by ERC grants. I was an engineer, but I got a project from the European Research Council to do experiments on mice that had our devices implemented. Today I have a clinical research grant, but I am certainly not a clinical neuroscientist who routinely works with patients. But maybe when we interview together in five years, I will be.

You’ve lived in many countries in your lifetime…

I was born in Canada, and moved with my parents to West Texas as a kid, where I did my undergraduate and graduate studies. I moved to Germany for my PhD and then to France. Subsequently, I travelled extensively between France and Sweden. And now I have settled down at the ICRC in Brno, Czech Republic. In order for scientists to do cutting-edge research, not only money is important, but also mobility, because it allows you to take advantage of the infrastructural advantages of the workplace, such as extremely expensive equipment or laboratories and other facilities.

Do you enjoy the new beginnings that come with every move?

Even though I live in Brno now, I still travel a lot, as I am involved in many scientific collaborations. I love travelling. New beginnings are interesting, I enjoy learning new languages and getting to know the culture of different countries. But I don’t see moving around Europe as a major change, because all countries have a similar culture in some sense and I know what to expect. Even if each country is different, it’s still Europe. I wonder what it’s like to make a “real move” and look at Asia, Africa or the Middle East for example. Not that I plan to, but it would certainly be a very different experience.

Do you think the ICRC will be your last destination?

It certainly has all the qualities to be one. I can say for sure that I will spend the next 5 years here. I have a big ERC Consolidator grant here and a few other smaller projects, so I really have a lot of money to do the research I want to do. The support I have at the ICRC is also phenomenal.

What were the main reasons that brought you to the ICRC?

The main reason was that the ICRC is a very friendly and welcoming host institution, with not only excellent scientists but also excellent administrative staff. They are all very supportive in giving me access to everything I need. A secondary reason is also partly personal. I spent a lot of time in Germany, so it feels familiar and reminds me of where I spent time with my children when they were young.

Do you have a specific example of a situation that surprised you by going smoothly?

When I arrived, I spent several weeks preparing documents for the ethics committee to work on my grants. We didn’t even have to wait a month for some of them to be approved. In France, we would have waited a year. It’s not because it’s easy to get permission in the Czech Republic, but the system is very efficient. The Commission was very cautious about ethics and research safety. We answered all the uncertainties, and by the next day we had a reply that our document was provisionally approved, but we had to make some additional changes. And they were still apologising for taking so long.

You’re currently looking for PhD students, postdocs and technical staff, and you’re building a new research team in Brno. Is this the first time you’re building a team from the ground up?

It’s the second time. The first ERC Starting grant I got to start a research group was in Marseilles, France. I built a new team there, but then the end of the grant and the outbreak of the pandemic came together. Moreover, at that time all my students, except one PhD student, had finished their studies. Today they are postdocs all over the world and two of them are even at prestigious universities in the USA. I am very proud of them because it is not usual for French students to get jobs in the US.

What are some of your mistakes that you will learn from in the second round of building your research team?

I made a lot of mistakes the first time, especially on the administrative level. I think I was often, and sometimes unnecessarily, arrogant and confrontational. In France, it is extremely difficult to organize any kind of research. My experience is that the work ethic there is not the highest. In addition, I had the misfortune of being there during a pandemic when everything was subdued. And even though I knew what the French work habits were, I often pushed too hard and tried to get better conditions. Today I know that even if you’re right, you have to be more diplomatic.

Have you had to learn to deal with people who are not necessarily scientists but are in decision-making positions?

I have changed a lot in this respect over the last few years. Today, if I deal with directors, deans or heads of departments, I am very moderate. I know now that I can’t walk into a meeting wearing a sweatshirt, start acting like it’s an informal scientific meeting, and pretend to be the smartest person in the room. I’m going to put on a shirt and respect that these people know how their institutions operate on a day-to-day basis and I have to adapt to that. I may think they’re wrong, but I discuss things and look for compromises. And I try to move things forward.

You have 4 ERC grants. I don’t doubt that you have great scientific ideas, but do you think that your success is also due to the fact that you simply learned to write ERC grants well?

I think I’m very efficient in the way I write them, but anyone can be. An ERC grant application is a space where you can let your creativity run wild and describe a very complex and interesting problem and propose a solution to it, but you can afford to leave the ending open. Everything must be based on facts and strong arguments. I really like this system of ERC projects. I find writing them fulfilling and fun.

ERC grants are different from the similarly prestigious US NIH grants. My experience is that NIH grants are very dense and clearly written documents. It’s one sentence with many citations after another. And the experimental part of the project looks like a perfectly described spaghetti recipe. You describe every detail of what you’re going to do. ERC grant applications are very different in this respect.

What will you be doing in your latest ERC project?

Very briefly, we will be looking at techniques that allow deep brain structures to be stimulated from surface electrodes, which can contribute to the diagnosis and treatment of certain diseases such as epilepsy, tremor or cognitive impairment. Non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve from electrodes placed on the patient’s neck can help treat epilepsy or Crohn’s disease, while stimulation of the sublingual nerve can improve symptoms of sleep apnoea.

So you have a clear research direction for the next 5 years.

Anyone who gets an ERC project has to use the money to meet the objectives set out in the project. My goals seem meaningful to me now, but the path to them may be very varied. When I did my first ERC project, I was working on very different research at the end of it than at the beginning, because I realised halfway through that I hadn’t seen the translational potential of the technology towards patients at the beginning. We created a second independent line of research, explained everything in the project documentation and pursued a new direction because it seemed to me the most sensible use of the money. I will take the same approach now. If in a few years it turns out that what I wrote in the grant application when I submitted it doesn’t make sense in the context of current knowledge, I’ll change my research direction.


Author: Vědavýzkum.cz (TM)

Photo: ICRC

Article adapted for the ICRC website with permission of the author.


Adam Williamson

Adam Williamson is a new addition to the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC) of FNUSA and LF MU in the field of neuroscience. The Canadian, who studied theoretical electrical engineering in Texas, received his PhD from the University of Ilmenau in Germany. He has worked in Sweden at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet and other universities. His last workplace before coming to Brno was the Inserm Institute in France.

From an engineer he gradually became a neuroscientist with the ability to apply new technologies to clinical research. His research has received significant support from the European Research Council (ERC) under the EU Horizon Europe programme. He is the recipient of a total of four ERC grants (ERC Starting Grant in 2016, ERC Proof-of-Concept in 2020, ERC Proof-of-Concept in 2022 and ERC Consolidator in 2023). He is now transferring the latter two to the ICRC for implementation, the second of which is entitled Epilepsy Treatment Using Neuromodulation by Non-Invasive Temporal Interference Stimulation (EMUNITI). The grant promises five years of research support for a team called “Neuromodulation Technology” that Adam Williamson is building at the ICRC.

Since 2016, the Outpatient Clinic for Oncology Follow-up Care under the direction of Tomáš Kepák, M.D., Ph.D., has been operating in the premises of St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno (FNUSA). It offers care to patients who have undergone oncological treatment in childhood. It responds to the development of knowledge about the long-term effects of treatment on the later state of immunity, cell aging, or the premature development of chronic diseases. In line with the current European trends, the follow-up care services are now moving into the psychosocial field alongside purely medical care. Mgr. Lucie Štrublová is in charge of nutritional counselling. Being a childhood cancer survivor herself, she shared her experience and insights with us in an interview.

Photo: Lucie Štrublová

Photo: Lucie Štrublová

Please tell us your story.

Dr. Kepak calls me a woman of several roles (laughs). I was treated for a neuroendocrine tumour from the age of 10 to 15. My illness then led me to choose my profession. I graduated as a nutritionist at the Medical Faculty of Masaryk University (LF MU), where I am also currently finishing my PhD. In 2015, together with two other healed friends, I founded the association Společně k úsměvu, z.s. (Together to Smile). As a patient organization, we collect the experiences of other people affected by childhood treatment to form a rich nationwide network. We feel there is a need to share our experiences with each other in an effort to support children, teens, young adults and their families during and after the challenging cancer treatment. We seek to do this through a number of projects.

But my greatest achievement in life is my daughter Anita.

How long have you been working in the Outpatient Clinic for Oncology Follow-up Care at FNUSA?

I have been at the outpatient clinic since January 1, 2023 as a nutritional therapist, but we have been working together since 2018 when I came as a researcher as part of my dissertation. I study the role of adipokines as predictors for the development of cardiometabolic risk in young adults after childhood and adolescent cancer. Adipokines are proteins in our body that are produced by our adipose tissue cells and also influence various metabolic and hormonal functions in our body. With our research team, led by Professor Julia Dobrovolna from the Faculty of Medicine, we are trying to find out what the production of selected adipokines in adipose tissue looks like in patients just after treatment.

What specifically is your task in your new role as a nutritional therapist?

I provide targeted nutritional counselling for patients who have a referral from their physician. We discuss proper lifestyle choices together and I assess their nutritional status. Based on my findings, I then provide patients with individualized plan to establish appropriate eating habits.

What is the waiting time for your services?

So far 1-2 weeks.

What difficulties do patients most often come with?

The most common are overweight, obesity or lipid spectrum disorders, i.e. imbalances in blood lipid levels. These problems often go hand in hand with cancer treatment. Some diagnoses are at risk of developing overweight or obesity and associated cardiometabolic problems after treatment. Examples of these diagnoses include acute lymphoblastic leukaemia or brain tumours. The development of overweight and obesity in these diagnoses is influenced by the interplay of several factors, of which the treatment itself, such as cranial radiation or hormone therapy, is a very important factor. Frequent physical limitations, which can be seen especially in patients after brain tumours, or poor education of parents or patients themselves about nutrition after treatment, also play a role. When dealing with these difficulties, I always try to take an individual approach with each patient.

How can nutrition affect the course of treatment?

Nutrition is an important part of supportive care during the treatment itself. A patient’s body that is malnourished responds less well to the treatment administered, has a higher risk of developing certain complications, and if they have had surgery, their wounds are slower to heal.

How long do you care for a particular outpatient?

So far, I am starting my activity and I am scanning the needs of the patients. I see patients who need longer-term cooperation, but also patients who I see 2-3 times.

Is there a story that sticks in your mind?

Definitely yes. I have worked with a young woman during my research, who went through a challenging cancer treatment in her teens. She was then faced with a secondary tumour again as an adult. We first met when she was very overweight, and that was very distressing. She did not feel comfortable in her own body, which was uncomfortable. When you’ve had such a challenging treatment, it leaves marks on your body. And especially treatment in adolescence doesn’t really boost self-esteem.

That’s when we started working together to change. She was very motivated and interested in nutrition, and she started moving regularly, running, exercising. Gradually her weight started to change, the amount of body fat dropped rapidly, and she started to feel good. Last week she had a consultation with me. I saw a confident woman and sitting in front of me, who had lost 10 kilos and felt like herself again.

Does your work extend beyond the walls of the practice – for example, by creating recommended practices for professional societies?

That’s my goal for the future. However, I don’t yet have the data and practical experience to create any practices.

The trend in cancer care now is to cover needs comprehensively, in collaboration with downstream disciplines such as yours. Do you think we are succeeding?

We are definitely doing better than in previous years.

How important is it for patients to support people who have gone through the same fate? 

That support is crucial. Knowing that there are people somewhere who have experienced the same thing as me and can live a good life, can give me a helping hand and understanding.

To share your experience, you founded the aforementioned association Společně k úsměvu, z.s. Could you give us more details of the individual projects you are dealing with?

Our aim is to support children who are currently undergoing treatment and to help those who have completed treatment and are struggling with some of the late effects of treatment, such as psychosocial difficulties, nutritional problems, dental problems or fertility disorders. It is through individual projects that the association provides this help. In particular, I would mention the Wise Guide project, which is set up as a mentoring programme. A team of our experts trains a cured patient to become a mentor, who then provides support to children and families in the Department of Paediatric Oncology at the University Hospital Brno.

We also have a Self-Help Group project, which is a support group for people who are struggling with some of the late effects after treatment. The group is coordinated directly by a psychotherapist. It meets once every 2 weeks.

But a big part of our work is the Astra project, which is dedicated to the late effects of treatment. We are responsible for raising awareness of the late effects of cancer treatment through webinars, workshops and the production of educational texts and publications on the subject.

Photo: Team Společně k úsměvu, z.s.

Photo: Team Společně k úsměvu, z.s.

Besides nutrition, what topics do you think are important to communicate in relation to childhood cancer treatment – which the general society is not aware of?

There are a number of topics: discrimination in the labour market, life insurance or accessing a mortgage. The medical history that has been with the patient throughout his or her life plays a central role in these situations. Nowadays, in some European countries, the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ has been approved for precisely these reasons. However, the return of patients to schools and communication with teachers and pupils in the classroom about the specific needs of these individuals is also problematic. This also includes depression, anxiety or fertility disorders.

How can clients seek your help? 

In the Outpatient clinic, a physician refers patients for nutritional counselling. Within the association, you can reach us on our website or through social media.

Is there anything you would like to say to paediatric patients?

You are not alone!

And what would you say to the society in which the (cured) patients move?

The fact that at first glance you cannot see problems of a person after oncological treatment does not mean that he/she does not face them. There are many health problems and indispositions that are hidden and very difficult for us to communicate with someone who has not gone through the disease. Whether it’s chronic fatigue that prevents us from living life as we were used to before, even years after treatment, or whether it’s depression or anxiety that a large percentage of patients struggle with. Be considerate.

Thank you for the interview.


Author: Marta Vrlová, M.A., MPH, Senior PR Specialist ICRC, marta.vrlova@fnusa.cz.

Contact for media: Ing. Jiří Erlebach. Head of PR and Marketing, Spokesperson, FNUSA, +420 543 182 006. jiri.erlebach@fnusa.cz.

February 15th is the annual International Childhood Cancer Day. This year, at the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC), we want to highlight the needs of cured paediatric patients who are dealing with the consequences of their treatment in adulthood.

Since 2016, the Outpatient Clinic for Oncology Follow-up Care under the direction of Tomáš Kepák, M.D., Ph.D., has been operating in the premises of St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno (FNUSA). It offers care to patients who have undergone oncological treatment in childhood. It responds to the development of knowledge about the long-term effects of treatment on the later state of immunity, cell aging, or the premature development of chronic diseases. In line with the current European trends, the follow-up care services are now moving into the psychosocial field alongside purely medical care. In particular, our clinic has expanded its services to include psychological care and nutritional counselling. In this way, we also support patients in taking responsibility for their own health care in a broader sense.

What problems do patients face? How do they feel in relation to the general population? And what are their specific needs? One of the new team members, psychologist Jakub Kozák, offered us his insights.

Jakub Kozak

Photo: Mgr. Jakub Kozák

How did you come to work at the Outpatient Clinic for Oncology Follow-up Care at FNUSA?

Dr. Kepák invited me to join the outpatient clinic as a member of the future psychosocial team, in order to map the needs of patients from a different perspective than has been customary so far. The current European trend is similar. Dr. Kepák and I know each other from the Department of Paediatric Oncology at the University Hospital Brno. I have long been involved in the field of child psychology and psychopathology. We felt that cooperation could be beneficial, even though the practice primarily focuses on adults, because many topics overlap with our category of patients.

What is your role within the clinic?

I offer screening for mental health needs to patients. If I spot a problem that falls within my area of expertise, I try to treat it in some way. Acute conditions can be dealt with on a short-term basis. However, because we do not yet have the capacity for long-term care, we then try to transfer patients to regional specialists as close to where they live as possible. Clients come to us from a wide area of Moravia, sometimes even from Bohemia. Our aim is to create a network of collaborative centres with colleagues from other outpatient clinics to provide the support patients need.

So, at this point, are you able to offer patients the specific names of local colleagues to take over their care?

In some places, yes, in others we’re still making contacts. Networking is a longer-term process. There are also areas where psychological care is generally scarce, but we are trying to work with that.

Do you offer services to all patients of the clinic, or does it depend on referrals from doctors?

I try to reach out to everyone. If I am unable to meet someone directly in the outpatient clinic, for example because of the schedule of examinations that patients undergo with us, my colleagues mention the possibility of a psychological consultation.

What age group do you work with?

I meet with the whole spectrum of people. We have young adult patients, five years out of treatment, but also older patients, in their forties and fifties.

What difficulties do patients most often come in with?

With younger patients, around the age of 25, we often deal with their entry into adulthood, the possibility of becoming independent and setting rules towards their parents (family). A parent whose child has been in direct danger to life may subsequently be hyperprotective, that is, trying to protect their child too hard. This is a natural consequence of the treatment; however, it is important for the young adult to realise independence in life as far as possible, not to be bound by the anxious care of the parent or their efforts to control potential risks.

Another set of difficulties are concerns about the future, issues of family planning, often reproductive health and the very possibility of having children at all. There is also the fear of recurrence of the disease and the concern about the illness of one’s own child. There are often anxieties that may already stem from the personality make-up of a particular individual, and these can be greatly exacerbated by treatment.

Do you ever encounter the opposite spectrum of experiences, e.g. positive patients who are able to take life in their stride because of their distressing experience? 

I’m glad you mention that. In our work, we always hope that even when a child is hit by such a powerful experience, it may not always lead to permanent major limitations and distress, but it can move him/her on. When a patient like that comes along, it’s always a wonderful encounter. Dr. Kepak often calls our practice a “clinic of joy” when we see many patients, who have gone through challenging treatment, reach important life milestones, even though they may have doubted it during treatment. There are also those who completely reassess their value ranking. This is especially true for those who are affected by treatment during adolescence. They think a lot about their situation, and I dare to say they often come out enriched.

Is it possible to distinguish traumas and experiences related to treatment from others? Or is that not even desirable and you approach your patients’ problems holistically?

We cannot always be sure that a certain problem is primarily related to the treatment, but we try to make that distinction. We do, however, take it as a kind of extra for patients with this difficult experience, that they have the opportunity to address their issues, if they wish to do so. This relates both to memories and to their own overall perception of their quality of life in the current period. Our limit for now is our capacity. So, we need to consider the extent to which we will develop support within our outpatient clinic and when we will engage with a network of other professionals.

Do you also work with patients’ families?

Adults are in varying degrees of autonomy in the context of their relationship with their parents. Our patients have at some point used parental support quite extensively on various levels and there comes a time when it would be desirable to gradually loosen this bond. Sometimes it is successful, the parent keeps his distance and gives the child the space to find the optimal degree of autonomy naturally. Other times it is less successful, and so we try to work with that. We also have a group of patients who have more significant health limitations due to treatment, such as cognitive or motor impairment. Some parents sacrifice so much that they permanently subordinate their lives to the child’s needs, they are available to the child, they care for the child nonstop. We then address the model of how patients could exist without the majority presence of the parent, and thus have the possibility of realization without parental support.

What about partner relationships?

We are addressing that just occasionally, for the moment. There are questions about the extent to which the partner needs to be informed about the patient’s past. I remember a case where this information did not come up at all and we discussed to what extent the patient wants to inform the other person about the treatment at that stage of the relationship, what his/her concerns are and how this topic can be opened in partner communication.

What kind of mental hygiene do you recommend to your clients?

All of us, regardless of the presence of serious illness or treatment, benefit from taking care of our own resources. Thus, I find it important to think of my own body and mind in self-care, while doing at least a little something every day to feel good. It doesn’t take a lot of time or energy, just that focus and setting aside the essential minimum is very important. Part of it is prevention, striving for a healthy lifestyle. In addition, with our patients, my goal is always to pinpoint an area where they can experience usefulness, so that they can live well and see their own value even with a possible handicap.

You mentioned the European trend towards comprehensive care for cancer patients and survivors. It reminds me of Prof. Koutecký, the founder of paediatric oncology in the Czech Republic, talking about the need to see patients in their whole context, including psychological support. Do you think we are succeeding?

I have a lot of inspiration in palliative care, where this trend of a holistic approach is very strong. I now see a similar direction in our efforts in the clinic. We have to try to do this, even if it sometimes means facing various attitudes of other professions towards psychological work, perhaps some prejudices. Part of this is due to the less tangible way we work. And I hope that we are succeeding – this must be decided by patients and colleagues from other disciplines. In our clinic we are certainly making efforts to achieve it.

OCHOPhoto: the Outpatient Clinic for Oncology Follow-up Care at FNUSA, in the middle MUDr. Tomáš Kepák, Ph.D.

Are you the only clinic in the Czech Republic with similar services?

There is another center at the Motol University Hospital in Prague, with which we cooperate. We are currently going there for an internship to harmonise care concepts and to discuss foreign trends.

Does your work have an outreach to the public or do you develop recommendations for professional societies?

We are just starting with outreach. For example, we are in contact with patient organisations. I also see the importance of education in schools. We know of patients who have had a very difficult return to school. There is a need for an appropriate educational approach to the specific needs of the child in/after cancer treatment, but also a need to work with the class and integrate the individual who has gone through a challenging experience – often threatening their own life and its long-term quality.

What topics do you think are taboo in society today in relation to childhood cancer treatment?

I see a certain degree of disadvantage for the group of cured patients. We are trying to work towards equal opportunities for them. Many cured patients are actually healthy after cancer treatment, yet they struggle with discrimination. This concerns, for example, the possibility of arranging a mortgage, insurance, employment opportunities. These people want to live a full life and have a perspective.

Is there a story that sticks in your mind?

I can think of one outpatient who was significantly affected in his own self-sufficiency by treatment. We are now working on getting parents to allow themselves to seek appropriate help. We are addressing how much further care they will provide and to what extent they will use social services support. The reason this particular case comes to mind is the poignancy with which parents have to process major losses in their lives. One minute they are raising a child they believe will take care of itself in adulthood. Then a moment comes that somehow takes away that relative security and they have to reorient their approach. They are also faced with the fact that the social system cannot offer them enough support. We want to seek the highest possible level of life fulfilment for these patients, for the families. I think that as a society we should do more about this.

The stories you encounter must often be challenging. How do you maintain your own mental health?

I have a certain habit of working with stories that I keep within professional boundaries. But I also want to mention my family, who are a great support for me. I consider it a great gift, I would say a “life bonus”, that my wife and children carry with me this very service to people with difficult life stories. It certainly changes not only my outlook on life and the world, my whole family shares it with me. At the same time, I couldn’t do without my personal resources, which for me are music, the creative process in general, and sports.

How can clients find your help? If we wanted to conclude by offering a helping hand to those who are hesitant or unfamiliar with aftercare options?

We are working on better communication of our services externally. As part of the process of completing treatment, patients are given information about where they can access follow-up care. We also have our own space on the FNUSA website and work with patient associations. If patients feel the need and are not yet in the follow-up system, I can definitely recommend it. In hyperbole, we compare it to technical inspection of a car – we offer a check of overall health, including my screening of mental fitness. We will certainly be happy if patients take advantage of this.

Thank you for the interview.


For more information and contacts for making an appointment at the Outpatient Clinic for Oncology Follow-up Care at FNUSA, please visit: https://www.fnusa.cz/pro-pacienty-a-navstevy/pracoviste/dispenzarni-onkologicka-ambulance/ (CZ only)

The clinis’s activities were part of the European PanCareLIFE project, which set out to improve the quality of life of children and young patients cured of cancer throughout their lives. This is now being continued by the follow-up project PanCareFollowUp, supported by the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Union (grant no. 824982).

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In an interview with Irena Rektorova, a physician and head of the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC), a joint workplace of St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno (FNUSA) and the Faculty of Medicine, Masaryk University (LF MU), we talked not only about how to run a research institution – unique in the Czech Republic – that combines research with direct patient care. We also asked about the EXCELES project and how to attract talented foreign scientists.

prof. Rektorova

Since January 2022, when Irena Rektorova became the head of the ICRC at FNUSA, many things have happened. A joint workplace agreement with the Faculty of Medicine and a cooperation agreement with the Faculty of Science of MU have been concluded. Within the framework of the National Recovery Plan, one of the three pillars of the project focused on neurodegenerative brain diseases with cognitive impairment has been led, and thanks to the ICRC, FNUSA has been able to take over the coordination of the entire project. She also managed to negotiate the recruitment of a foreign scientist coming with an ERC Proof of Concept grant and much more.
In all this, Irena Rektorová continues to work in the outpatient clinic, coordinates the Neuroscience Programme at the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) and leads her research team. She also sits on the boards of international medical organisations. Now she gave an interview for Vědavýzkum.cz.

Keeping in touch with live science

Do you remember that turning point when you got into organising and leading research activities?
The first time was probably when I became the head of the Centre for Cognitive Disorders at the First Neurological Clinic at the Faculty of Medicine of Masaryk University and FNUSA. I was leading a team of clinicians, organizing professional seminars, teaching of students and PhD candidates and thanks to that I was “staying in science”.
With the establishment of CEITEC, a large shared laboratory MAFIL (multimodal and functional imaging) was created, fully operational since 2015, where a number of neuroscientists from both university hospitals, the Faculty of Medicine and other Brno institutions found refuge. While at the hospital we could only do research on brain imaging with MRI half a day a week, and only if it was not needed for an acute patient examination, at CEITEC two excellent three-tesla MRIs (3T MRI – ed.) were available purely for research. In addition, we were able to recruit great engineers, psychologists and scientists with backgrounds other than that of a neurologist, psychiatrist or radiologist.
That was a huge leap. From my medical practice, I was used to getting phone calls from patients all the time, and suddenly I could leave the hospital for two days a week and just focus on research, my students and my team. Working with PhD students and medical students interested in clinical research was and still is very recharging, although I have much less time for my team now than I used to.
I built this from basically scratch and in the process learned how to manage things – from constantly writing grants and checking that research is recruiting patients or volunteers as planned, to overseeing data quality, processing and interpretation, communicating results at conferences, to writing manuscripts and overseeing publication outputs to ensure that the project is evaluated to be excellent.

Clinics and research under one roof

What then brought you to the head of the FNUSA-ICRC?
The great advantage of the ICRC is that basic and clinical research is carried out under one roof. We are in a hospital where we have access to patients, plus researchers from the teams are very much connected and work on joint projects, which makes it easier to translate basic research into clinical practice. And the reverse is also true – we can test different side effects, such as the toxicity of new drugs on organoids in basic research. The interconnectedness goes both ways.

In this respect, you are a rather unique institution in our country. Was that also the main reason for its creation?
That would be a naive idea. (laughs) There was a lot of lobbying behind it, so that Brno would have two important institutions, the ICRC and CEITEC. And because at first it looked like only one would be created, they were not completely positive towards each other, which persisted for a long time.
In fact, one of the reasons why I was tempted to become the head of the ICRC was to normalize relations, which I hope I have succeeded. I don’t so much mean the relationships of individual researchers who understood the need to work together, but rather those of the “heads”.
I also managed to link the ICRC to Masaryk University. Since July, we have been a joint workplace of FNUSA and LF MU. Thanks to the connection with the university, we can also better access some structural grants from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. With the creation of this “Brno platform” we are much stronger and more competitive, also in terms of fundraising.

So, what is the focus of the strengthened ICRC at the moment?
The big topic is that, through the ICRC, FNUSA is now coordinating one of the EXCELES call projects within the National Recovery Plan. It involves 11 institutions with a budget of just under 600 million crowns for 3.5 years. The project is expected to result in the creation of a National Institute for Neurological Research as an advisory body to the government.
At the same time, research on neurodegenerative diseases of the brain is being conducted, divided into three pillars: one on cognitive issues, which includes Alzheimer’s disease, one on motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, and then neurodevelopmental diseases such as dystonia or epilepsy.

Beyond the clinic

Could you elaborate on how the ICRC works in terms of research infrastructure?
In addition to the 23 research teams, we run 6 core facilities, such as the Center for Clinical Studies, the Biomedical Engineering Facility or our clean rooms for the development of cell and tissue therapies. These offer services not only to our researchers, but also externally – to the entire country and nearby foreign institutions.

On your website you also announce services in technology transfer and cooperation with the private sector. How are you doing in this area?
To put it simply – a hospital as a contributory organization cannot create spin-offs. The ICRC is unique in that it is the only research institution in the Czech Republic that functions within a hospital. We are working to negotiate with the Ministry of Health to find a way to transfer technology. And although we do not currently have sufficient apparatus or legislative conditions for this, a commercial department could certainly make a living in ICRC – several patents have already been created on our grounds.
The establishment of a joint workplace with Masaryk University gives us the opportunity to deal with some patents together, so we are now discussing mutually beneficial possibilities of cooperation. Contract research in the area of clinical studies in patients and animal models has been very successful at the ICRC for a long time and is one of the sources of funding for our research teams and core facilities.

“That’s just the way it is” – the pitfalls of international collaboration

Broadening the scope, what are the ICRC’s main international partners? And does this bring any pitfalls in addition to the obvious advantages?
From the very beginning, the ICRC has maintained a strategic partnership with the Mayo Clinic in the USA. It was facilitated by the financial “budget” dedicated to this collaboration at the time, which we no longer have today. So, immediately after I joined, I approached Professor Worrell, who was the coordinator of this collaboration at the Mayo Clinic, to clarify what research groups they would be interested in for joint grant submissions – without asking for a financial injection from us.
Unfortunately, this is the way it is at prestigious institutions – for example, it is also the case at Karolinska Institutet – that you have to pay for collaboration. Which is quite hard to imagine, but unfortunately it was probably important for the connection with the Mayo Clinic. It was subject to wide criticism, and I myself was critical of it, but it did help in some ways. For example, the fact that some of the scientists were able to go to America and bring back the know-how they had acquired, that helped to kick-start some of our groups. (laughs)
Today, however, we do our research with international partners purely through international or European grants, mostly Horizon-type grants, which we have managed to get.

How the ICRC convinces excellent scientists

How does it happen that a person gets the opportunity to create his or her own research team? At least at the ICRC?
Nowadays, through an open international selection process, which is determined by the new rules for the creation and dissolution of research groups that I pushed for when I joined the ICRC and which we have managed to put in place. Such an institution needs to be flexible and responsive over time. Some groups are simply not successful – they don’t have great enough publications, they don’t get grant funding, and they are not rated well by the “ISAB” (International Scientific Advisory Board) that we use to evaluate research teams. And therefore they will disappear.
Other groups will come into existence as people come in who are excellent in research and have the desire to start their own team with us. And because there is a limited number of excellent scientists in the Czech Republic, we are interested mainly in foreign junior scientists who have already achieved something in research and have the drive – such predatory pikelets.

How do you get to them? Do you actively seek them out?
If we know of a great scientist who would be a good fit for our portfolio, we can now put out an open call for applications. Anyone from home or abroad can apply, and we advertise both home and internationally. In the end, we choose the best one.
I would also like to push for researchers to come to us with their grants, especially of the ERC type. In December, Adam Williamson, a Canadian, will join us with an ERC Proof of Concept grant, and he is setting up a junior group here and partly at CEITEC VUT and is already applying for other grants. He will focus on non-invasive brain stimulation techniques, particularly electrical stimulation of deep brain structures, in patients with degenerative disease or epilepsy.

And in this particular case, have you approached this scientist directly? What attracted him to you?
First of all, he has a long-standing collaboration with Eric Glowacki, who came to CEITEC VUT with a similar ERC grant, and their activities are in the field of research that I have long been involved in clinically with my team at CEITEC MU, i.e. non-invasive stimulation methods. On the one hand, he has seen that foreign scientists with expertise in this field are beginning to meet with us. And finally, he saw that the ICRC is much more flexible and will create better conditions for him than Aix-Marseille Université and Karolinska Institutet, where he also works or has worked, and where, among other things, there are much higher “overheads”, so he will get more from his grant for his research here.

Did he really know this himself, or did you convince him that he would find such conditions at the ICRC?
It was partly negotiation, partly Eric Glowacki convinced him, partly me. He’s been here several times, he’s seen the premises, I introduced him to the director of the hospital, the dean of the Faculty of Medicine knows about him. I think he got excited because I introduced him to the researchers in my group – he immediately tested how capable they were.
In addition, we are offering him the opportunity from the very beginning to lead the Ph. D. students, which we are able to share with him. His projects are already filed with the ethics committee, which usually approves them within a month or two. In short, as soon as he joins us, he can start doing research, which is something he can’t get elsewhere.
But there are certainly bureaucratic, operational and other obstacles that you encounter when acclimatising foreigners…
To be honest, I have to say that the Czech authorities prevent foreigners from entering the country in the first place – for example, by requiring them to pay for insurance in advance. In addition, some foreign workers imagine that they will have everything provided for here, from a nursery for their children, a job for their partner to housing. And although we try to accommodate them within the boundaries we set, we can’t do everything for them. Fortunately, we have an HR department that has been working on internationalisation as part of the HR Excellence in Research project.

Irena Rektor’s normal week

Finally, I would like to focus on how do you yourself actually function in all this, or what does your, undoubtedly, busy working week look like?
When I started in January, I thought I would be able to “shake things up”, but I am still shaking things up (laughs) – there are too many activities. What I know for sure is that I have meetings all day Monday, Tuesday I spend at CEITEC, Wednesday I am “ambulating” at the hospital, and Thursday and Friday I deal with things mostly related to the ICRC. In between that, of course, we submit grants and publish, then there’s the weekend when I do work for the European Academy of Neurology and a whole bunch of other things.

What do you struggle with the most…?
Emails. I’m starting to hate them. (Laughs) The trouble is that all my meetings generate more work and it’s impossible to just meet. But I have to say that I have great administrative teams around me, such as the operations, HR and Finance Departments, which process all the big grants, and a Grant Office that other hospitals don’t have – which is also how we can do the EXCELES project, which otherwise only universities can do.

Author: Vědavýzkum.cz (MP)
Photo: Patrik Uhlíř
Article adapted for the ICRC website with permission of the author.

Irena Rektorová completed her internship at McMaster University in Canada before finishing her medical studies at the 1st Faculty of Medicine of Charles University, despite her parents’ fears that she would not finish her interrupted studies (which was not common then as it is now). After specializing in neurology, she joined St. Anne’s University Hospital (FNUSA) as an assistant professor at the 1st Neurological Clinic. She developed her academic career at the Faculty of Medicine of Masaryk University, where she was appointed Professor of Neurology in 2012. She headed the Centre for Cognitive Disorders and now serves as the head of the Centre for Abnormal Movements and Parkinsonism. In 2011, she built a research group at the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) MU focused on applied neuroscience. Her research and medical practice focus on neurodegenerative brain diseases, cognitive disorders and dementia, or brain imaging and non-invasive stimulation techniques. In January 2022, she became the head of the International Clinical Research Center ICRC, a joint workplace of FNUSA and Faculty of Medicine MU. Internationally, she has been involved, for example, in the committee of the patient organisation European Parkinson’s Disease Association (EPDA), served as scientific secretary of the International Association for Parkinson’s Disease and Parkinsonism (IAPRD) and, since July this year, became a member of the committee of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN), the largest European expert neurological organisation cooperating with 47 national neurological societies.