PhD in the Spotlight: Clemens Heilmann
On 15 February Clemens Heilmann (1984) will be awarded his doctorate degree at the UvA . During his research at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences (SILS) he mapped out the cell wall of the pathogenic Candida fungus. This information will make it easier to detect this fungus and, hence, to eliminate it.
What was the most remarkable result produced by your research?
‘The cell wall proteome of the Candida fungus is more stable than we thought, which makes the fungus easier to detect. The cell wall of Candida albicans contains dozens of proteins. Until now, we had always thought that these proteins varied all the time because the circumstances of the fungus – for example, whether or not it is growing – determine which type of proteins it produces. I made use of mass spectrometry, a technique that can be used to identify molecules, to look at the proteins and discovered that five proteins on the cell wall and seven secreted proteins outside of it are always present. These permanent proteins can therefore be used to detect Candida.’
Is the fungus dangerous?
‘Candida poses no imminent danger to healthy people. Around 80% of the human population is colonized by Candida. The fungus nestles itself in the mucous membranes – in the mouth, the intestines and the skin, for example. It can, for instance, cause vaginal infections. However, Candida can pose a serious threat to people with low immune status, such as intensive care patients. It can enter the blood stream and cause death within a week. At present it takes two to three days to detect the fungus. Accelerating the detection process will increase a patient’s chances of survival. Perhaps a vaccine will be developed that focuses on the permanent proteins I discovered. There are medicines available to fight Candida, but the advantage of a drug or vaccine aimed at the cell wall is that it has very few side effects because humans cells have no cell walls.’
Did you enjoy conducting this research?
'One of the things I enjoyed most was being part of the FINSysB network. This is a network of European research groups specialised in fungal infections. Every year I also attended several international conferences, and researchers from other universities in the network came here to work with our mass spectrometry equipment, which is of very high quality. I contributed to their research, and in exchange I became co-author on their papers. All of this was tremendously helpful. Of course, there were also times when I wanted to throw everything out of the window. When that happens, the trick is not to give up and just keep going.’
What will you be doing next?
‘I may continue doing research on fungi, but I am also interested in the industrial side of the discipline. The research at the other universities in the network is being continued, so if I choose another path my results will still form the basis of extended research. The Netherlands was a great place to gain international work experience and I enjoyed my stay here very much, but I will probably return to Germany or move to another country nearby, such as Switzerland. I miss the good bread and the mountains.’
Author: Carin Röst