Prof. Cumhur Öner made his mark on orthopaedics, now retires

Professor of Orthopaedics Cumhur Öner is retiring after just under thirty years at UMC Utrecht. Öner left his mark on orthopaedics, but was also at the forefront of regenerative medicine in Utrecht.

Cumhur Öner has had an eventful life so far. He grew up in Turkey and in the early 1980s, as a young traumatologist in training with leftist sympathies, he ended up in prison after he had given medical aid to protesters. After coming to the Netherlands as a political refugee, he was able to work at the Erasmus MC, where he subsequently specialized in orthopaedics. From November 1993 he worked at the UMC Utrecht and further specialized in spine surgery. NRC already described his life in 2016 in a beautiful portrait (in Dutch).

A strong backbone for spinal surgery

In terms of orthopaedics, Öner's legacy lies in the spine. As a surgeon, he operated on many patients. He contributed to the AO Spine classification system, which gives damage to the spinal column due to trauma a score, and with that a treatment guideline for the surgeon. It made UMC Utrecht an AO Spine Reference Center and the largest spine center in the Netherlands.

From bone research to regenerative medicine

He also came to new insights in research: ‘We have learned a lot about bone in 25 years. Our view of bone tissue has evolved from a passive frame in your body to a dynamic system that has a strong link to the immune system.’ Öner believes in activating this immune system to regenerate bone and thus repair damage, even if it is still not clear how we can do that in a controlled way. ‘We've done research on certain proteins that supposedly promote bone growth, and we can show at least one of them doesn't work better than the standard,’ says Öner. ‘But we now see that there is a lot of potential in ceramic materials. Its surface can influence the immune system, and thus perhaps stimulate bone growth.'

And so Öner, together with biomaterials researcher Wouter Dhert, became one of Utrecht's pioneering regenerative medicine researchers. Dhert looks back on the collaboration: “Everything flows, the world is constantly in motion, nothing is fixed except your own values and use them as a beacon in this changing world, but above all, change with it. That's Cumhur. I have come to know him as a creative thinker, a gifted surgeon and a good friend. He is the type of leader others like to follow; friendly, knowledgeable, and inspiring. You need these people to make the world a little better, and he has done that with spinal surgery, among other things. Of course as a practitioner, but he also trained a whole 'school' of spinal surgeons and spread them all over the Netherlands and beyond. Many others have also been inspired by him and he has made wonderful connections within patient care and with the sometimes quite basic research.”

"Learning, caring, teaching"

The different roles that Öner fulfilled fit well with his vision of medicine: ‘I have always committed myself to the three roles of the medical oath, “learning, caring, teaching.” I have no compartments in my life, so as far as I'm concerned that's one pack. The roles complement each other, so I didn't just want to operate, but also research and teach.' In his farewell speech on July 4th, he also has a message to future physicians. ‘Everything revolves around profitability these days, and that puts pressure on the link between medicine and science. Make sure you keep time to do it all.’

A look ahead

He sees an increasing role for orthopaedics. “There has been a kind of obsession with death, and as a result everyone is concerned with the biggest causes of death – cancer and cardiovascular disease. But when you look at healthy living, orthopaedic complaints such as back and neck pain and worn-out joints are the biggest threats. The older we get and the more we survive cancer, the more relevant good orthopaedic care will become to live those extra years as healthily as possible.' Prof. dr. Öner himself remains active as a surgeon on a smaller scale, in external clinics.

Find more information about the farewell of Prof. dr. Cumhur Öner here.