Amazing drive and enthusiasm within the Food4Health programme

Interview with Artem Khlebnikov, Danone Nutricia Research

Danone Nutricia Research have been a driving force in innovation in nutrition for cancer patients and were the initiators of the EIT Food4Health project, MuscleCancer. To understand why Danone is participating in the Food4Health programme, we spoke to Artem Khlebnikov, Strategic Partnerships Director at Danone.

Danone is committed to the Food4Health idea to organise innovation differently. And although the company braced for surprises along the way, so far these have only been positive. Partner skills and enthusiasm, as well as innovation speed, exceed expectations.

“We were searching for the right spot within EIT programmes”, says Artem Khlebnikov PhD, Strategic Partnerships Director at Danone. “Our motto is ‘bringing health through food to as many people as possible’. EIT Health is mainly focused on cure and in EIT Food prevention isn’t mainstream either.”

Danone was therefore in for the idea of Food4Health from the beginning in March 2019. “It offered exactly the right mix to us. What is more, the process went ahead with warp speed. The project proposal about the benefit of the right nutrients and physical exercise for muscle mass preservation in cancer patients was ready in April. The project outline with built-in flexibility followed in May. It was very well structured, each step coming with clearly defined deliverables. A call for participation in the projects came in the beginning of June. By the end of July, partners were selected, so that the actual work could start in September.”

Far from trivial

Parties agreed upon a top-down, targeted and directed approach, whereby Danone had an instrumental role in crafting the project. Khlebnikov explains: “Not ‘anything goes’ as long as rather vague guidelines are respected, but instant alignment on concrete goals and deliverables. After massive initial investments in clinical cancer nutrition, we now see real opportunities for markets and patients.”

These are not solely Danone’s goals and deliverables but shared by all partners through collaborative efforts. Khlebnikov: “We are in the field of nutrition intervention, but physical exercise is equally important to solve the real-world problem of better preparing cancer patients for treatment and speed up recovery.”

It is a far from trivial challenge. Combining nutrition and exercise is not standard practice in today’s cancer treatment. “We aim to change the standard of care”, Khlebnikov states. “This makes it a high risk, high gain project. Physicians are aware of the importance of nutrition and muscle mass. But if there is no solution, it’s not in the protocols and KPIs and therefore not on their radar.”

Crystal clear

The project brings the necessary pieces together for a solution. Khlebnikov: “Could we do it alone? Probably, but it would take forever. We hold some pieces about nutrition, other partners hold other pieces regarding physical therapy and digital solutions for dissemination of information. Some pieces are still missing – as is the case with dynamically measuring muscle mass. By combining the pieces, solving the puzzle together, you push the sum of the parts beyond mathematical logic. This makes it a proper open innovation approach.”

Khlebnikov makes the comparison with the formation of crystals: when you have one crystal and the right catalyst, other crystals can form quickly. “Remember it’s innovation rather than research. The most important tasks are connecting dots, bridging gaps, building market mass, and sharing awareness”, he states. “I think this new approach is the future for EU projects.”

Clinical protocol

Khlebnikov knows that a clinical protocol for nutrition and exercise intervention will only be adopted throughout Europe when clinical proof of results will be established. Therefore, hospitals in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Spain participate to do just that. Some have joined in for the nutrition part, others for the physical exercise part. “The best methods for each part have to be selected or combined into a best practice.”

After this, the nutrition and exercise parts will in turn be combined in an integral approach. “So far we have been able to proceed very quickly towards this goal”, so says Khlebnikov. “We have been able to do so despite the inevitable delays caused by Covid 19, thanks to the enthusiasm and the willingness to take calculated risks by participants.”

Timeline discrepancy

Although Khlebnikov is very positive overall, he also has a worry. “We are now entering the phase of clinical trials. Here we engage the difficulty that EIT is based on an annual funding framework that fits awkwardly to transformative change. Clinical partners are only willing to engage in clinical trials when funding for the entire clinical trial period can be guaranteed. This creates the risk of a status quo. This must be solved, or we will fall back to the conventional approach. It is a pivotal issue.”

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EIT Food is a network of industry, academic and research partners, set up to transfer our food system. By connecting consumers with businesses, start-ups researchers and students from around Europe, EIT Food supports innovative initiatives that improve our health, our access to quality food and our environment.

EIT Health is a network of best-in-class health innovators backed by the EU. We deliver solutions to enable European citizens to live longer, healthier lives by promoting innovation. We connect the right people to work on societal challenges across European borders so that innovation can happen at the intersection of research, education and business.