Portrait and video Natasja de Groot: "I now feel a responsibility to connect people”

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Due to ageing, obesity, diabetes and increased blood pressure, the number of people suffering from cardiac arrhythmia is increasing. There are treatments, but they have their limitations. Professor Natasja de Groot wants to improve this situation. She is a cardiologist and professor of electrophysiology and focuses on improving the diagnostics and therapy of cardiac arrhythmia. As Medical Delta Professor, she is now affiliated not only with Erasmus MC but also with Delft University of Technology. "Because of my appointment, it is better known that I am involved in cardiac rhythm disorders and technology. People now know that Natasja is the right person to talk to."

In the video below, Natasja de Groot tells about her Medical Delta professorship:

"I have been working with scientists at TU Delft and with researchers from other disciplines within Erasmus MC for a long time," says De Groot. "That is nothing new for me. But as Medical Delta professor, I now feel a responsibility to connect more people in this field. I like to promote collaboration and I also propagate this in my research group. Thanks to my appointment, it is better known that I am involved in cardiac rhythm disorders and technology. People now know that Natasja is the right person to talk to. It is easier to find me and the number of projects is increasing. This is due to the visibility that Medical Delta offers."

Can you give an example of what the collaboration looks like in practice?

"In order to develop new treatments for cardiac arrhythmia, we first need to better understand how they arise. Therefore, we started a study in 2010 in which we take measurements directly on the heart during open-heart surgery. In this way, we collect unique data on electrical conductivity in the heart. With the help of scientists from Delft University of Technology, the measuring equipment and data processing have continued to improve in recent years. 

Partly due to these improvements, it is now possible to take these kind of measurements of young children with a congenital heart defect. We are the first in the world to have done this. These measurements show that even very small hearts have conduction disturbances. The question is then whether this causes arrhythmia later in life. We still have a lot of measuring and research to do to find out. Because our current electrodes are actually still too large for a baby's heart, we are working on an improved version."

How do collaborations like these have impact on patients?

"Thanks to collaborations and new technology, discoveries and innovation are accelerated. It allows us to further unravel cardiac rhythm disorders. This makes it easier to make the right diagnosis, and new treatments are developed. And thanks to new techniques, we can also measure the effects better. Furthermore, health apps and wearable devices are being used more and more. They are already there, but there is still room for improvement, for more patient-friendly solutions. 

I also work with patients whenever possible. Together with Prof. Bianca Brundel of Amsterdam UMC, I set up the AFIP foundation. Our aim is to improve communication with patients, for example about treatment options for cardiac arrhythmia. We also stimulate co-creation. A patient came up with an idea for research. We developed it, successfully applied for funding and carried it out. We were one of the first in The Netherlands to work this way."

What is your advice for successful collaboration?

"As a medical researcher, what you should not do is go up to an engineer and ask him or her 'make this for me'. If you have such an assignment, you should go to the industry. You should achieve a collaboration in which you share insights and in which both parties have fun. Therefore, you really need to take the time to understand each other's field and learn the language of another. As a medical doctor, open a maths or physics book again. Collaborating with another discipline requires an investment. The extra time you need to invest in cooperation will not be taken away by Medical Delta. Medical Delta does show what is possible and feasible and that is contagious, but you still have to want it and do it yourself."

What makes it worthwhile for you to invest in collaboration?

"I like science in a broad sense and I like the intellectual challenge. When you look across borders, it deepens your own field. When I get home in the evening, I often look something up on the internet. You can sit on the couch and watch TV, or open a book."

Where will the Medical Delta be in ten years’ time?

"In ten years' time, Health Technology will be an even more important field. Collaborations will become more intensive, between medics and technicians and between the three universities in Rotterdam, Leiden and Delft. People will switch more easily between universities and research will be carried out jointly. The first batch of clinical technologists is already graduating. They are engineers and doctors at the same time. That is unusual at the moment, but it will become common. I do not see a single large university happening; the differences are too great for that."

Which other researcher surprised you?

"I could name three or four. But Yannick Taverne is really special in my opinion. As a cardio-thoracic surgeon, he is in the operating theatre day and night, and yet he finds time to do research into the molecular mechanism of the heart. Together with him, we are investigating how you can measure electricity on very thin tissue, with all the technical challenges that come with it."

This article is part of a series in which we highlight the nine new Medical Delta professors. Click here for the other portraits that have been published so far. Natasja de Groot's research contributes to the scientific programme Medical Delta Cardiac Arrhythmia Lab.

Read more about the first measurements of disturbances in the atria of the heart of children
Read more about the research of Yanick Taverne 

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