Chemist Bert Janssen receives 1.5 million Euros for research into communications between cells

Bert Janssen

The European Research Council has awarded Dr. Bert Janssen a Starting Grant of 1.5 million Euros for his research proposal on the communications between cells. Miscommunication between cells can have serious consequences, including growth and development disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer. However, at the moment scientists lack methods for studying the communications (and miscommunications) between cells in detail. Over the next five years, Janssen hopes to be able to change that.

“My eventual goal is to have such a thorough understanding of cell-to-cell communications that we can have a better idea of how to intervene when something goes wrong”, explains Janssen. “To do so, we need to be able to study in detail how cells bind to one another and then communicate signals. For example the exchange of signals between neurons during the development of the nervous system.”

Developing model methods

The connection and transmission of signals is performed via proteins that are located on the outside of the cell surface. Since his PhD. research, Janssen has worked on elucidating protein structures and their mechanisms of action. His research has focused on the proteins separated from the cells. “Over the past three years, techniques for studying proteins in and on cells have improved dramatically, but this still requires lots of ‘tricks’ . It is especially difficult to quantify and visualise the protein-protein interactions between cells, because model methods are currently lacking. Thanks to recent improvements in electron microscopy and tomography, we can now develop the methods we need.”

Different techniques

Due to the complexity of the protein-protein interactions between cells, Janssen must combine a variety of techniques and methods. These entail crystallography to elucidate protein structures, electron microscopy and tomography to visualize how a protein complex on one cell interacts with a protein on another cell, and Surface Plasmon Resonance to determine the strength of that interaction. This is followed by fluorescent labelling to validate conclusions on interactions based on the other studies. However all of the methods and techniques will have to be further refined by Janssen and his group.

Bert Janssen

Bert Janssen (1978) studied Molecular Sciences in Wageningen and earned his PhD.cum laude with Prof. Piet Gros at Utrecht University. He was awarded a Human Frontier Science Program Fellowship, allowing him to conduct research for three years at the University of Oxford . Afterwards he returned to Utrecht to work at the Crystal and Structural Chemistry group. In 2012, he was awarded a Vidi grant by NWO to start his own research group.

Life Sciences

This research is part of Science for Life, which falls under the strategic theme of Life Sciences at Utrecht University.