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12Oct 2017

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New group leader wins prestigious Steiner award

Jacco van Rheenen group leader Steiner award

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 13th.

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."

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