Biophysicist Jacco van Rheenen has won the Jozef
Steiner Award, a prestigious scientific award consisting of 1
million Swiss Franc. As per October 1st he works at the
Netherlands Cancer Institute, leading his cancer biophysics
research group. The award allows him to continue and extend his
fascinating research, which involves studying cancer cells by
filming them. The award ceremony is held in Bern on October
Filming cancer cells: it might sound a bit futuristic but it
would be an ideal method to unravel many of the existing mysteries
about cancer cells' behavior. Is it technically possible to spy on
cells that are hidden within an organism, within tissues?
Biophysicist Jacco van Rheenen came up with an ingenious solution.
He developed a system in which mice carry a little window in their
belly through which researchers can film fluorescently labelled
cells. "We can now literally see how spreading cancer cells move
from the tumor to the blood stream and how they form metastases in
other parts of the body," says Van Rheenen. "We discovered, for
example, that cells leave small vesicles with RNA, proteins and
lipids behind when they move."
On October 1st Van Rheenen officially started as new
group leader at the Netherlands Cancer Institute. Many members of
his former group at the Hubrecht Institute joined
him in this move. All these new faces at the Molecular Pathology
division (C2) will join their efforts to continue the fascinating
cell filming research. Ultimate goal is to record what goes wrong
in cancer cells, how cancer grows, and how we can best react to
this. The project Van Rheenen will fund with the Jozef Steiner
Award focuses on the effect of calorie intake on the formation of
intestinal cancer. "It is known that a reduced intake of calories
is associated with an increased lifespan and less tumor formation
in mice. We will be filming in detail what happens to stem cells in
the gut when mice are given a low-calorie diet." This video animation explains how stem cells can
become cancer cells when they lose their APC-gene.
Van Rheenen is excited to join his new colleagues at the
Netherlands Cancer Institute, where he did his PhD research and
postdoc work in his early career. After more postdoc work in the
United States he ended up at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht.
"I'd worked at that same institute for 9 years and I felt it was
time for new input. I'm looking forward to collaborating closely
with my new fellow researchers, some of whom I've already been
working with. At the Hubrecht Institute I felt like the cancer
specialist among the stem cell people, I guess now I'll be the stem
cell guy amongst the cancer specialists."