12 September 2017

Nobel Prize of the Low Countries

Albert Heck and Alexander van Oudenaarden accept Spinoza Prize

Spinoza laureates posing with state secretary
Spinozalaureaten: v.l.n.r Alexander van Oudenaarden, Michel Orrit, Albert Heck, Eveline Crone met staatssecretaris Sander Dekker en NWO-voorzitter Stan Gielen (credits: Melvin Tas)

Today, Professors Albert Heck and Alexander van Oudenaarden from Utrecht University were presented with the Spinoza Prize by State Secretary Sander Dekker. Each year, research financer NWO awards this ‘Nobel Prize of the Low Countries’ to researchers who are among the very best in their fields worldwide. The Spinoza laureates each receive 2.5 million Euros to spend on their research at their own discretion. Heck and Van Oudenaarden also work together in Utrecht Life Sciences.

Utrecht Biomolecular pioneers win Nobel Prize of the Low Countries
Albert Heck and Alexander van Oudenaarden reflect on their Spinoza Prize

Albert Heck and Alexander van Oudenaarden both conduct research into health and sickness at the smallest possible level: our cells and the molecules inside. Both are considered by their peers around the world to be pioneers in the development of techniques for detailed observation of biomolecules. Albert Heck is a specialist in the field of proteomics; the study of cellular proteins. Alexander van Oudenaarden focuses his work on the development of individual cells and the differences between them. The unprecedented insights that their research has provided may eventually be used to improve diagnoses and medications for a wide range of conditions.


How does life work at the molecular level? Proteins are the molecular ‘machines’ that allow cells to function. Albert Heck studies how they work and tries to understand the manner in which proteins can communicate with one another, both in healthy cells and in the context of diseases. He aims to use the Spinoza prize to improve techniques used to study the interactions between proteins and their surroundings.

Albert Heck (1964) was appointed Professor of Biomolecular Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics at Utrecht University at the age of 33. As the Scientific Director of the Netherlands Proteomics Centre since 2003, he has positioned our country among the world’s top in the field of Proteomics. He has been honoured with several international awards, including the Frank. H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award by the American Chemical Society, which is only awarded to researchers from outside the United States in highly exceptional circumstances.


The human body consists of around 10 trillion cells, and no two are identical. Scientists therefore depend on techniques that are sensitive enough to be able to measure individual cells. Alexander van Oudenaarden has developed a new method to measure which genes in a cell have been activated or deactivated. This has led to many important new insights about the origins of diseases. For example, cancer cells are often very diverse. Van Oudenaarden aims to use his Spinoza award to develop new methods to show how the cell’s past determines its future.

Alexander van Oudenaarden (1970) is group leader and general director at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research. In 2013, he was appointed to the position of Professor of Quantitative Biology of Gene Regulation at the Utrecht University’s faculties of Science and Medicine. After earning his PhD at TU Delft, Van Oudenaarden went on to Stanford University in the United States. At the age of 38, he was appointed as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 2012, he came to the Hubrecht Institute.