"There’s an increase in liver diseases throughout the world, both in animals and in humans. Think of viral infections, or fatty liver disease due to obesity. There's an organ shortage, human liver donors are scarce, so there's an urgent need for alternative treatments. That’s why people are investing in the type of stem cell treatments that we develop in our lab. We are at the forefront of research into liver diseases.
The liver is a fascinating organ, because of its large regenerative capacity. If you take away 70 percent of the liver, it will grow out to its original size and function within a couple of weeks. That’s really quick. Yet, we still see a lot of liver diseases, so there's a limit to this regenerative capacity.
We have developed all sorts of technology, such as stem cell culture and molecular biology, to study liver disease in great detail. Combining pathology with molecular biology usually leads to very interesting findings and might lead to novel treatment options. Currently, we are working on a large project on the transplantation of adult stem cells in dogs. Once successful, this technology can be easily translated to the human clinic. In the veterinary clinic, blood based biomarkers can play a vital role in detecting the (severity) of liver diseases. We developed techniques to see what type of liver disease an animal has and can predict possible treatment outcome.
Another focus point of our research is the biofabrication of a liver. We are making 3D printed miniature livers for toxicological screens. There’s a big demand for these miniature livers from pharmaceutical companies as a lot of drugs actually get retracted from the market, because they’re toxic to the liver. A system to check this is needed and we think that biofabricated livers can actually solve part of this problem."
Saving animal lives
"We are already printing these miniature livers and they function, but we want them to be as optimal as real livers. That’s the challenge, because you have to reconstruct the entire liver with multiple cell types and include microfluidics, in order to mimic the entire organ and function. That’s what we’re optimising now together with Jos Malda (UU Biofabrication) and his group. Drugs legislation now requires animal testing, so if we would have a system that prevents the testing of a new drug in animals, that would save a lot of animal lives.
I have built an extensive network throughout the Netherlands and abroad. Maintaining your network takes a lot of time, but collaborations generate plenty of new ideas. Especially if you're aiming at collaboration rather than competition. One of our strengths is an open and honest atmosphere combined with high quality and quantity. This creates opportunities, even if they seem too wild. But as Nelson Mandela said: 'It always seems impossible until it is done'. So go to the lab and see if it works. Always give it a try.
Working in groups
I don’t go into the lab that often anymore, because most of my time goes to supervising PhD’s, postdocs and students. I like to see my students progress and help them to think scientifically, questioning everything they do. The people in my team are used to working in groups and help each other out. We don’t only have bright minds, but we are also scientists who are willing to share and collaborate.
Willing to share
We care about animal welfare. Sharing ideas, material and tools has been instrumental for us to gain our position in liver research as a spider in the web. This open sharing attitude does improve translation of fundamental findings into clinical practice, mutually beneficial for animal and human biomedicine."