Geert-Jan Boons wants to turn biological problems into technological innovations
Newly appointed Professor in Chemical Pharmacology
After 25 successful years in England and the United States, Prof. Geert-Jan Boons has chosen Utrecht University as the place where he will realise his next ambition. Last month, he and several members of his research group moved from the University of Georgia (USA) to the David de Wied building at the Uithof. As department head and Professor of Chemical Pharmacology, he wants to take his pioneering work in the field of complex cellular carbohydrates, called glycans, to the next level. Prof. Boons wants to know what the complex structures of the glycans says about their biological functions to uncover the roles they play in disease and to open new avenues for the development of therapeutics and vaccines.
“Every cell of every living organism is covered by a layer of complex carbohydrates, known as glycans, which are critical for life and play vital roles in health and disease”, Boons explains. For example, a defect in a specific complex carbohydrate structure can cause cellular migration, which in turn can result in tumour metastasis. This implies that tumour cells can be recognised by a specific glycan that is not present on healthy cells. With this knowledge, Boons and his colleagues have developed a therapeutic cancer vaccine that allows the immune system to recognise this glycan and spring into action. That is Boons’ driving motivation: turning biological problems into technological innovation.
This is also a reason why he decided to move, after 18 years, his large and successful research group at the University of Georgia to start afresh in Utrecht. “The University of Georgia doesn’t have a University Medical Centre. In addition, Utrecht University has a Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and a Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. The research group led by Frank van Kuppeveld, for example, has a lot of expertise in pathogens such as the flu virus that use glycans to penetrate cells. I love the opportunity to work with them to understand viral cell entry and help develop the next generation of diagnostic and therapeutic.”
After 25 years speaking English on a daily basis, Boons occasionally has to search for the correct word in Dutch, but he says that the return to Utrecht feels like coming home. But even Russian, Indian and Chinese researchers in his group who followed him from the US are enjoying the move to Utrecht. “They’ve been offered great living accommodation at the Uithof, and they’ve found that the Dutch are very open and welcoming people. I hope that their positive experiences will encourage other members of the group to come over soon. Because the chemistry of cellular glycans requires quite a bit of specialist knowledge and their expertise is needed in Utrecht.”
Nature makes these molecules complex for a reason. I want to understand why, by discovering the relationship between their structures and biological functions at the molecular level.
Complex glycan molecules
Boons is a pioneer in the synthesis of the complex glycans, which perform a wide range of biological functions on the outer cell surface. There are thousands of different types of these molecules on every single cell in the body. They are compiled from a known set of building blocks, but they are not linear like DNA and proteins. The innumerable branches of these molecules create enormous structural diversity, which makes their analysis and synthesis in the laboratory much more complex than that of DNA or proteins. “For now every glycan is basically a research project of its own”, explains Boons.
Complex for a reason
Boons finds the complexity of the glycans intriguing: “Nature makes these molecules complex for a reason. I want to understand why, by discovering the relationship between their structures and biological functions at the molecular level.” But to do so, the glycans must be analysed and synthesized much faster than is currently the case.
In order to realise his ambition, last year Boons was awarded an NWO TOP-PUNT subsidy of two million Euros together with Albert Heck who is the Professor of Biomolecular Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics at Urecht University. Boons expects that glycans will eventually be able to be analysed and produced fully automatically, as is now the case with DNA and proteins, so ‘glyco-omics’ may be able to provide a major impulse to biomedical research the way that ‘genomics’ and ‘proteomics’ have done in the past.
Geert-Jan Boons (1962) studied chemistry at Leiden University and earned a PhD. on research dealing with the development of a vaccine for the meningococcus bacteria. After two years working as a postdoc in London and Cambridge, he started working at the University of Birmingham (UK), where he was appointed full professor in 1997. A year later, he exchanged this position for an appointment at the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center.
In 2004, Boons received the Horace Isbell Award from the American Chemical Society. In 2013, he was presented with the Roy L. Whistler International Award in Carbohydrate Chemistry, the most prestigious award in his field of research. Last year, he won the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award ‘for his seminal contributions to glycoscience by developing novel methods for oligosaccharide assembly, the preparation of important glycoconjugates and their use in biological studies’.