“Genes provide you with information about health risks. However, they do not tell you that you will definitely become ill, or, if you do, when that will happen. But when you look at metabolites – the interim and end products of metabolism – they give an indication of how well you really are at that moment! The tricky bit is to create a good read-out that measures all relevant metabolites that can predict the development of diseases in principle; it is then a case of making that affordable. After that, the data needs to be properly interpreted and then it is a question of suggesting therapies. This approach could even make it possible to identify potential diseases at a very early stage, when they are still reversible, enabling us to prevent disease.”
Blood samples from everyone in hospital
“We need to develop technology that can measure thousands of metabolites with the required level of precision. In other words, the relevant metabolites, which are associated with such processes as oxidative stress and inflammatory stress. These substances are transported by the blood. Currently, as an initial test case, we are able to make use of blood samples collected during studies in which people donated blood. However, I hope that we will be able to extend this to a large number of patients, for example by taking a blood sample from everyone admitted to hospital. It is already standard practice to take blood in this way, but the research conducted on it is very limited. This needs to be extended, so that we can use it – in addition to our previous knowledge – to learn how to detect a disease at an early stage.”
A body on a chip
“Currently, on a laboratory scale, we are able to measure hundreds of metabolites in around ten to twenty thousand samples every year. Building more laboratories would be inefficient. What is needed is new technology. That would bring us to the next step: from all those thousands of metabolites, you need to select biomarkers that provide information about people’s state of health. This then raises the question: is this purely about correlation or are there really causal relationships? How do you single out the causal markers? Part of the answer can be found in genetics – but there is another route. We want to be able to build systems on chips, which means using a person’s stem cells to grow several cells of a specific type, such as kidney or brain cells. The stem cells will also be used to grow blood vessels. We will then place these organ- and blood vessel cells on a chip, enabling us to explore how the body’s cells interact with each other and with the blood. In the near future, this will enable us to place the cells of people who we know to be at risk of a specific health issue onto a chip and conduct
research on them. We will be able to see how the cells respond to specific substances that we administer via the blood vessels.” “That will make it possible to refine therapies. On a chip of this kind, there are 96 units in which there is a piece of grown organ tissue and a piece of blood vessel. This therefore makes it possible to test a drug on 96 test subjects all that same time, or alternatively, to create 96 units with different cells from the same person and then to test the effect of various potential drugs on that single patient.”
Innovation should stay here!
“In many ways, you could say I am a fan of America. There, if they come up with a good idea, they put it into practice straightaway. In the US, starting a business goes much faster than in Europe. In the field of metabolomics, research in Europe is still ahead of the US, but there is now increasing investment in it there as well. My question is this: what can we do here and now in order to make these technological innovations happen here, rather than in the US? That is what I intend to fight for. For our organ-on-a-chip company, Mimetas, we have already achieved that here in Leiden. But collecting, conserving and monitoring patient material is not something that you can do in a company; that needs to be done in an academic setting. But it may be possible to achieve the technological innovations in a company. Whatever the case, I am determined to develop them here.”