Success for chemical biology researchers

NWO VENI and VIDI in the CBDD division

Photo by Josch Kuhlmann

At the start of the summer good news reached dr. Jack Li and dr. Balthasar Heesters. Both are working in the Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery group of the Utrecht Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences. Their backgrounds differ however. Jack is a chemist and Balthasar is a biologist/immunologist. But then this is the essence of a Chemical Biology division: to study biology by chemical means.

Jack received his PhD cum laude in April 2022 and started as an assistant professor in January 2023. Although his thesis was about glycans (O-acetylated sialic acids), his VENI proposal is about nucleotides (cell-surface localized RNAs). The group of Carolyn Bertozzi, who received a Nobel prize in October 2022, just after visiting our institute, recently discovered that RNA, modified with glycans, can be displayed on the surface of living cells. How and why is yet still unknown and that is what Jack will explore with his chemical biological techniques. It is too soon to tell if this will lead to drug discovery in the end.

Balthasar already received a VENI grant in 2017, while working for the UvA. He joined the CBDD division as assistant professor in March 2021. His VIDI proposal is a followup of the VENI, both aim at understanding how antibodies change to improve themselves, even during a disease. Balthasars group studies how and where this process of improvement (affinity maturation) works. Although antibodies are proteins, glycans play a role here as well. Since having the best antibodies gives a patient the best outcome of disease, it is crucial to understand this process of improvement. This could even lead to more effective vaccines in the future.

Antibodies have been found to bind cell surface glycoRNAs, so maybe the studies of Jack and Balthasar will become synergistic, when the four different biomacromolecules meet: lipids, glycans, nucleotides, proteins. They have started collaborating, so we shall see.

Figure made by E.E. Moret with Biorender