Learning in Leuven


Be honest, the first thing that strikes you when you’re in Leuven is just how many good-looking young people there are in town. Only then do you notice the gorgeous architecture. After that, it becomes quickly evident that Leuven is also crammed full of bars.

At 579 years old, Leuven is the oldest remaining Catholic university in Europe and a hotbed of innovative research, from unborn babies to genocide

Be honest, the first thing that strikes you when you’re in Leuven is just how many good-looking young people there are in town. Only then do you notice the gorgeous architecture. After that, it becomes quickly evident that Leuven is also crammed full of bars.

With over 32,000 students at the local university, it’s not surprising. And with no enclosed campus, their energy spills out all over the town. They are everywhere – speeding past on bikes on their way to lectures, lolling in the squares and by the canals, hunting and gathering in packs at the supermarkets and talking at the top of their voices in loud cafes after dark, come rain or shine.

Around 3,500 of these bright young things are international students enrolled on the numerous programmes that the local Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) offers in English – mainly masters, doctoral and post-doctoral research. Compared alongside the top 500 universities in the world, KUL comes in at a respectable number 72. Within Europe, it is currently ranked 23rd out of 199 universities.

KUL currently has over 1,000 research projects going on in just about every subject you can think of, from the natural sciences to theology, philosophy and law. Two particular areas that are contributing to a deeper understanding of the times and offering up new ways to tackle old problems are in the areas of criminal justice and medicine.

When it comes to crime, the 70-strong professors and assistants at the Leuven Institute of Criminology are investigating a diverse range of issues from the role that governments play in the global trafficking of heroin, to more home-policy orientated areas, such as the prevention of youth delinquency in Dutch- and French-speaking regions of Belgium.

Since its creation in 2007, the institute has been receiving international acclaim for its work on political crime and human rights violations. Much of the work focuses on how countries and new governments can deal with the aftermath of violent conflict and mass atrocities such as genocide and rape.

Stephan Parmentier, a professor and head of the department of criminal law and criminology, has a track record in researching restorative justice processes, especially “truth and reconciliation commissions” – which offer victims and offenders an opportunity to face past events.

His latest work investigates how those processes formed in the 1990s in the wake of apartheid in South Africa might be applied in post-conflict areas. These include Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, where human rights abuses took place on a large scale during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The research involves in-depth interviews with 800 victims and perpetrators in Bosnia and Serbia on ways of seeking truth and accountability. “We try to analyse and understand what is going on. One of the side effects of the research is to generate debate. It is of great relevance to the society in question,” says Parmentier.

However, he cautions that the researchers don’t have too much influence. “We try to be very careful in not steering a particular process in one direction or another because we think it’s not our role. That should be dealt with by local people, local NGOs and local government, rather than foreign researchers,” he says.

In South Africa, the government has been receptive to Parmentier’s work and has recently asked the research team for more input. This hasn’t happened at governmental level in Bosnia or Serbia. “It may have to do with their wariness to involve foreign researchers or the international community in general in the Balkans,” says Parmentier. However, the research is being taken up by local NGOs discussing the formation of a regional truth commission.

Parmentier’s team is now setting out to investigate how the principles of restorative justice might apply to the ongoing conflict in Colombia. Still in the early stages, they are aiming at holding 50 in-depth interviews with victims and offenders. “The offenders are paramilitaries, ex-paramilitaries and ex-guerrillas,” explains Parmentier. “There’s a security issue involved here of course, as these people are not always the nicest, but if they are willing to talk, then it’s a unique opportunity to understand why they joined the violent gangs in the first place, how they view the conflict and how they see their own future.”

Higher hopes for new lives

When it comes to medical technology, some advances move faster than others. For example, ultrasound scanning of pregnant mothers has become a widespread practice all over the world, and fatal abnormalities in unborn babies can now be detected at a very early stage using ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques. However, early detection doesn’t always mean that a fatality can be prevented. Complications like a rip (hernia) in the baby’s diaphragm can limit the growth of the baby’s lungs and drastically reduce its chances of survival once it is born.

But a team of doctors from Leuven, London and Barcelona, led by Jan Deprest, professor of foetal medicine at the university’s Gasthuisberg hospital, has pioneered a technique using keyhole surgery and a small balloon that triggers the baby’s lungs to grow while it is still in its mother’s womb, and raises its chance of survival by up to 60%.

“The technique is born out of our frustration that babies still die because their lungs are too small,” says Deprest. Doctors have known for years that restricting the windpipe makes the lungs grow. “Since an unborn baby breathes through its placenta and not its lungs, we were looking for a way to get in and put something in the windpipe to close it. But it had to be something you can easily take out again so that the baby can breathe after birth. It also had to be minimally invasive,” explains Deprest.

Deprest and his team came up with the idea of using a balloon, and perfected the technique on rats and mice for several years to be certain it could really work with humans. They do it by inserting a plastic tube through a tiny 3mm incision in the wall of the mother’s uterus. A miniscule 1.2mm camera is then passed through the tube, letting the surgeon find the mouth of the baby. A catheter loaded with a very small detachable latex balloon is then passed through the baby’s mouth to its windpipe. The balloon is gently inflated just under the vocal chord to block the windpipe.

The whole procedure, which takes just 8-10 minutes, is the outcome of many years of research. “It has taken 10 to 15 years to perfect it to this,” notes Deprest.

The technique is not without problems. It can cause premature delivery, and surgeons will only offer the operation as a last resort. “Using ultrasound and MRI, we make a considerable effort to know very accurately which babies will not survive without the procedure. We only offer the procedure if there is a less than 20% chance that the baby will survive,” says Deprest.

“If we can get the pregnancy to 32 weeks [with the balloon in place] the baby has a 50-60% chance of surviving,” says Deprest. “It still means that 40% of parents will lose their baby. It’s psychologically very tough for parents.”

When the baby is ready to be born, unblocking the windpipe is easy. “The nice thing about the balloon is that you can pop it with a needle, and the baby can be born,” says Deprest. After the birth, an operation to mend the actual hernia can then be carried out.

The research has been part-funded by public money from the EU Framework research programme. Since the instruments required to carry out the operation are highly specialised and designed particularly for the procedure, the EU has also invested in a company to manufacture them. “It’s taxpayer’s money that has made all this possible, because nobody is interested in solutions for rare diseases,” says Deprest.

In Europe, the technique is only offered in Leuven, Barcelona and London. Leuven is the largest centre to offer it, and the Flemish government now subsidises housing for overseas parents who need the operation. “The procedure requires a highly-specialised team, so patients need to stay until the balloon is out before they can go back for delivery to their home country,” says Deprest. They also need to stay in case of a premature delivery, which with the balloon would prove complicated in their home countries.”

Deprest has performed a total of 250 operations, and the technique has now been adopted in the United States at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Here, Deprest is joining a research effort to find other ways to simulate lung growth.

“These people are not always the nicest, but if they are willing to talk, then it’s a unique opportunity to understand why they joined the violent gangs, how they view the conflict and how they see their own future.”


Learning in Leuven

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