Michiel Vermeulen came this close to becoming a physician. “I lost the raffle to start the program three times. I always expected to study medicine one day.”
But instead he will be working at the Netherlands Cancer Institute as a researcher. “I grew interested in experiments during an internship in the lab, How do two proteins respond to one another? The excitement of the unknown, of something no one knows, that’s what held me in its grip. I never lost my enthusiasm.”
My lab has expertise in proteomics, a powerful technology that can help us investigate how cells function and communicate with each other in tissue. We can measure this by determining the proteins that are excreted in the cells and tissue. We would like to use proteomics at the NKI to look into the way cancer develops inside the tissue.
Proteins provide tissue and organs with a specific function. The liver contains cells that detox the blood, and the pancreas produces insulin, that’s also a type of protein. But all these protein-producing cells don’t come out of nowhere. They’re produced by stem cells that occur throughout the body. An example: the body loses a fair amount of dead skin cells every day, Specialized stem cells in the bottom layer of the skin replenish the skin cells by dividing and creating new skin cells. My lab is interested in this kind of specialization. Because cancer disrupts this process.
The stem cells start dividing uncontrollably and without specialization. That eventually leads to a mass of cells that continue to divide rapidly, also known as a tumor. The protein production in a tumor has been disrupted, and it produces the wrong kinds of proteins. We can study these proteins using Mass Spectrometry. This can provide greater insights into this process.
We use a Mass Spectrometer, a large device that helps us determine the mass and consistency of protein fragments. Isolated proteins from cells are cut into smaller fragments first. We measure the resulting fragments with a Mass Spectrometer, so we can find out which proteins are present in cells, and in what numbers. The NKI recruited me to strengthen and expand our expertise in Mass Spectrometry.
I’m curious about the proteins on the outside of the tumor cells. These proteins can contact the proteins on the outside of immune cells and tissue cells. But what happens next? And why can some people’s immune cells destroy the cancer cells after immunotherapy, while others can’t?
I hope to have the opportunity to work with patient materials here. I mainly used lab-cultivated systems, where I would grow cells in a Petri dish. We would even make organoids, lab-grown miniature organs. But if you want to find out why immunotherapy doesn’t work for a particular patient, you need to use cells from that person’s body. You can investigate which proteins are found in their healthy cells, and in their tumor cells. And then you may be able to determine how the tumor circumvents the immune system.
I’m married to Nina. I have two daughters, Lotte and Milou, who are eight and seven years old. I like to stay active by taking my racing bike out for a ride. And I like to cook. I enjoy preparing a good curry. There is a certain overlap between cooking and my previous lab work. When doing an experiment, you need t develop a fingerspitzengefühl. You're working with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. In that sense, it can be just like preparing a recipe.
We're conducting a lot of fascinating research at the NKI. I can’t wait to collaborate with the other scientists. I’m a team player, and I love enabling others to use Mass Spectrometry to find the missing piece of the puzzle of their research. After all, proteins are relevant to every study.