In 2013, molecular biologist Eva van Rooij moved from sunny Colorado in the USA to the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht and shifted the main focus of her work from pharmaceutical company MiRagen back to academia. She was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant for her research on the function of microRNA-208 in the development of heart disease. Soon after, she received a Trans-Atlantic grant from the Leducq Foundation, which she is using to research whether it is possible to teach cardiac cells to repair the heart after a heart attack. It is research that has a major impact.
Van Rooij: "After my PhD in Utrecht, I worked as a postdoc with Dr Eric Olson in the Dallas Medical Center where we discovered the importance of microRNAs in heart disease. We found out that microRNA-208 has an influence on the development of heart failure. When we then deactivated microRNA-208, it emerged that not only did the condition of the heart improve, but diabetes also became less prevalent. MiRagen is now developing drugs to block the function of microRNA-208. In my laboratory at the Hubrecht Institute, we are researching exactly how microRNAs work. For example, how does the heart communicate with other cells in the body, allowing microRNA-208 to have an effect on the metabolism and diabetes?"
The molecular biologist gave up a lot by choosing to return to the University. "At MiRagen, I was able to delegate work, whereas here I need to do more by myself again. This includes arranging funding to keep the lab running and ensuring that all the test protocols are in order." Despite this, Van Rooij is still happy about the move. "I missed the academic freedom. Starting a company is exciting and you learn a lot, but it gives you less freedom to pursue discoveries. In my own lab at the Hubrecht Institute, we are conducting fundamental research in an attempt to find out exactly how heart disease develops." Van Rooij has also benefited in another area. "At the Hubrecht Institute, pioneering research is being conducted and new technologies developed. By applying this knowledge to the heart, we can raise each other to an even higher level. An example? Using the influential work of Professor Hans Clevers on new stem cells in the intestines as our basis, my team, in collaboration with the Clever’s group, was also able to study these cells in the heart after a heart attack. And based on techniques developed by Professor Van Oudenaarden, we were able to chart the gene expression pattern in the heart after a heart attack in great detail. Armed with this knowledge, we are now trying to manipulate the heart cells to make them respond more efficiently to a cardiac infarction. Ultimately, we will work with the cardiology department at UMC Utrecht to try to put these results into practice on patients."
Alongside her academic position, Van Rooij remains affiliated to MiRagen as a consultant. "Of course, being one of the founders I am interested in seeing how things develop at miragen. MiRagen will soon be testing the first microRNA drugs on humans and it will be exciting to see what the results are." Thanks to her experience in both commercial and academic research, Van Rooij has regularly been involved in entrepreneurs' courses at UU: her career is of interest to students who face the choice between business or an academic career.
In the next year, Van Rooij's lab will be expanding and focus not only on microRNAs and genes but also other factors that play a role in heart disease. "My aim for the years ahead is to conduct good and insightful science with a talented scientific team and publish pioneering academic papers about it in international journals."
Written by: Youetta Visser