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Shorter path to new treatments target for St. Erik Eye Hospital’s new research environment

5 August 2021

The research facilities in the new St. Erik Eye Hospital are now fully functional for researchers at St. Erik/Karolinska Institutet. The environment aims to provide optimal conditions for translating the research results faster and more efficiently from basic research to clinical reality for the patients. 

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Both researchers and clinicians have been involved in designing the new research environment.

In September 2021, it has been a year since the new St. Erik Eye Hospital opened in Hagastaden, Solna. The facility is in close proximity to Karolinska University Hospital and Karolinska Institutet (KI). In addition to ophthalmology care St. Erik also rents an area of around 1,500 square metres for research, innovation, and development. St. Erik’s tissue laboratory and histopathological laboratory can also be found here.

The ophthalmology research is conducted in collaboration with Karolinska Institutet/Department of Clinical Neuroscience, but also with the industry. Experimental, non-clinical and clinical research in, among others, retinal conditions, glaucoma and eye cancer are in focus here. In a nearby building, researchers also have access to an animal facility.

Researchers in the lab.
Experimental non-clinical and clinical research is conducted on the premises. Here Assistant Professor Pete Williams (far left) with his glaucoma research group in one of the labs. Photo: Jens Sølvberg

Funds from the region, KI and donations

The new research facilities have been constructed with R&D funds from Region Stockholm and KI. The laboratories are further equipped with the help from philanthropic donations.

A man with dark blonde hair and a dark suit.
Patrik Malmunger. Photo: Jens Sølvberg

"The research environment must fulfil many different requirements. It is important that we can conduct basic research, clinical research, and develop projects in cooperation with KI and the industry in the same facilities. Today we have well-equipped laboratories, office space and other research infrastructure on-the-ready. There are also meeting rooms where healthcare, academia and businesses can interact," says Patrik Malmunger, Head of External Relations at St. Erik Eye Hospital.

In one of the rooms on the research floor the pharmaceutical company Novartis has set up a walkthrough laboratory (mobility maze). It is part of a clinical study conducted by Novartis in cooperation with St. Erik/KI to determine the efficacy of a gene therapy product can improve visual function in people with a hereditary form of retinitis pigmentosa.

Researchers in the lab.
The research environment increases the possibility of collaboration between full-time researchers and clinical researchers. Photo: Jens Sølvberg

Building a research culture

According to Stefan Seregard, R&D responsible at St. Erik Eye Hospital and professor at Karolinska Institutet, the fundamental idea with the research environment is much larger than just the premises.

A man with glasses and a dark suit.
Stefan Seregard. Photo: Jens Sølvberg

"St. Erik is a university healthcare unit where we are responsible for integrating healthcare, research and education in cooperation with KI, it is of the utmost importance. If you create such an environment with full-time researchers and then integrate clinical researchers into the research projects, research interest may increase for many people. Our long-term plan is to stimulate that culture, which will take years to build. But this is a fantastic start," says Stefan Seregard.

Both researchers and clinicians have been involved in designing the new research environment.

"The environment aims to provide optimal conditions for bringing laboratory research results to the patient in the fastest and most efficient way," says Patrik Malmunger.

Researchers in the lab.
The research facility is designed with the aim to last and be able to adapt to changing rules. Photo: Jens Sølvberg

Complicated task to design research facilities

One of the researchers who has been involved in planning the new research facilities from the first architectural plans is Helder André. As a research group leader he manages, together with Adjunct Professor Anders Kvanta, the retina research group at Karolinska Institutet and is Head of Molecular and Cellular Research (MCR) at St. Erik Eye Hospital.

The group investigates the molecular and cellular aspects of retinal degenerative and vascular diseases in a bench-to-bedside manner, with the goal to find new improved treatments.

A man with dark beard and a blue shirt.
Helder André. Photo: Jens Sølvberg

"It was a challenging task. The design of the new research wing involved not only the architectural design and organisation of the rooms, but also had to secure the functional aspects including all details such as ventilation, plumbing and electricity, taking into account occupational regulations," says Helder André.

He believes that the most important issue when designing a laboratory is to focus on function, enable correct workflows and ensure safety.

"Sustainability and versatility are also important, especially when equipping a new facility with the aim to last and be able to adapt to changing rules and guidelines," says Helder André.

MCR consists of three main laboratories, each with a combined so called wet area, where experiments are performed, and a dry area for instruments. It also includes annex labs, such as a dedicated lab for cellular and tissue experiments, and a dark room for specific microscopy and light sensitive experiments.

"Our new research environment is now fully functional. Two of the three laboratories are occupied and we would welcome more basic researchers and non-clinical researchers on board," says Helder André.

He is envisioning great benefits from the new location of St. Erik in Hagastaden as it facilitates cooperation with other researchers at KI and collaboration partners, as well as providing convenient access to core facilities.

Researchers in the lab.
The new location of St. Erik in Hagastaden facilitates cooperation with other researchers at KI, Karolinska University Hospital and other collaboration partners. Photo: Jens Sølvberg

Facilities matching the high quality research

Now almost a year on from relocation, Patrik Malmunger is of the opinion that the research environment is in many ways better than expected.

"We observe this in how the researchers work, how knowledge and equipment is shared. The pandemic has of course put a spanner in the works, as we have not been able to benefit from external exchange of researchers or planned seminars. But I believe what was feasible went very well. The future concerns conducting the best possible research with successful and long-term projects, and we believe we have great opportunities to do this now with facilities matching the high quality of research," says Patrik Malmunger.

In the same building as St. Erik’s, KI is conducting optician training and providing facilities for covering the ophthalmology curriculum for medical students. Marianne Bernadotte Centre for Paediatric Ophthalmology and Dyslexia is also located here. The idea is that a cooperation between the hospital and KI should work as seamlessly as possible, both in terms of research and education.

"The hospital could not have been built in a better location than this, close to KI and Karolinska University Hospital. And when the pandemic releases its grip we can interact and meet more often in person during meetings, both with them and the private sector. But we will also carry our new digital habits with us into the future," says Stefan Seregard.

Text: Helena Mayer