Mechanical forces in cells play an important role in the body, but there is still much unknown about how exactly this works. Experimental biophysicist Prof. Dr. Gijsje Koenderink is researching this at TU Delft. With that knowledge, new technologies for detection of diseases such as cancer, for example, can be developed.
With her appointment as Medical Delta professor, Koenderink is now also affiliated with Erasmus MC. "Bottom up and top down thinking. That's the difference between a physicist and a biologist. That makes collaboration very interesting and sometimes difficult."
"In terms of scientific content, this appointment signifies a very nice connection with Erasmus MC as well as LUMC," Koenderink says. "I already work with Erasmus MC and there is a lot of potential for expansion. Now that I am officially assigned to Rotterdam, I expect to be there more often. Meeting each other is very important. To inspire each other, to stimulate, to think outside your own box. I also expect that we will actively develop research proposals together. Doing research together often starts with a joint application for funding, this appointment makes that easier."
"Mechanical forces in cells play a major role in our bodies and in our lives. They give the cell information on the basis of which the cell makes decisions, for example to specialize. This starts at the very beginning, when a single cell grows into a complete living human being. How this is possible has fascinated me since the beginning of my academic career.
Even after birth, these forces are important for cells' functions to run smoothly. An example is the cells in our bones. In space, lack of gravity decreases the strength of your bones. By exercising, you can make your bones stronger. Cells in bones thus constantly pick up mechanical forces and gather that information to keep the tissue in order. It ensures that the tissue has a constant property while being able to adapt to changing conditions. This also happens with injuries. That signals tissue to start repairing, a very important function. However the downside of this is that cells can also respond to abnormal mechanical conditions. For example, this is one of the causes of cancer and fibrosis."
"Collaboration is the common thread in my work. What I do is very interdisciplinary and takes place at the intersection of physics and biology. In the lab, we develop advanced biophysical measurement techniques. Together with biologists and biomedical researchers, we apply these measurement techniques to cells and tissues. What I appreciate about this is that you are constantly stimulated to learn new things. To learn to speak each other's language. As a Medical Delta professor, I expect to strengthen that further. I am now part of a larger community in which you can discover new opportunities to work together.
For example, fellow Medical Delta professor Gerjo van Osch has a lot of expertise in cell biology. Especially in cartilage and ways to repair cartilage. That is complementary to what we do in terms of the material properties of tissues. Every day I gain more knowledge due to these collaborations."
Bottom up and top down thinking. That's the difference. That makes collaboration very interesting and sometimes difficult.
"In my field, biophysical physicists and biologists work together. They are trained differently and think in varied ways about how cells and tissues work. Physicists have an elementary way of working, a reductionist approach; they want to make things simple. A biologist is used to a system being very complex, like a ‘black box’. From a physics perspective, you figure out what the defining components are and with that you start building a model. The biologist then wonders if such a simple model is really representative. Bottom up and top down thinking. That's the difference. That makes collaboration very interesting and sometimes difficult."
"That it is fun to work together is an important factor for success. Research is human work and the researchers are mainly the PhD students and postdocs. They must have chemistry among themselves. You achieve this by having interesting discussions with each other. By sitting together often to evaluate and make new plans. Working together becomes more fun when those conversations help to stimulate each other and are scientifically inspiring.
"The research we do is quite basic, but I expect aspects of it to have a practical application as early as five years. For example, our work may lead to new technologies for detection and early prognosis of disease. We are looking for ways to measure mechanical changes in tissue or a cell. If successful, that could be used as a marker for early diagnosis. This is very different from what happens now, where diagnosis is made genetically or molecularly. We expect that our method can be very powerful, because you can get an early read-out of all the changes in a cell.
Another insight we are working on could help develop new therapies. Cells constantly measure the overall status of their environment and decide how to adapt based on that. If we understand how cells can measure the status themselves and what goes wrong in the case of the disease process, than you could develop therapy based on that as well."
"Someone with whom I already collaborate a lot is Prof. Dr. Moniek de Maat of Erasmus MC. Together we supervise a PhD student working on blood clots. I know she has broad interests, but she still managed to surprise me with her interest in bacterial biofilms that grow on heart valves. Those bacteria use the protein fibrinogen present in our blood plasma, which I have been researching with Moniek for some time. We are planning to start new research on this. I had never made that connection myself; it's a completely different field. But if you think about it, the connection is logical and we can put our knowledge about this to very good use."
This article is part of a series in which we highlight the eight new Medical Delta professors. Click here for the other portraits published so far.