Phd in the Spotlight: Bert van de Kooij

8 April 2014

On 22 April, Bert van de Kooij (born 1983) will be awarded his doctorate at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). As part of his doctoral research at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences (SILS) and the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI), he explored programmed cell death in cancer cells.

What did you look at?

‘I researched programmed cell death, known as apoptosis, in cancer cells. This is a mechanism used by healthy cells in our body and ensures that cells with irreparable damage, such as DNA damage, self-destruct. The cell death is triggered by cellular proteins. Cancer cells almost always have a fault whereby such damage no longer leads to apoptosis. That means that in spite of being damaged, they still survive and develop into a tumour. For example, some cancer cells have high concentrations of the Bcl-B protein, which blocks apoptosis. I found that the longevity of this protein is regulated through ubiquitination, which is the marking of a protein with the ubiquitine molecule. This signals to the cell that the protein can be destroyed.’

What impact will this finding have?

‘We can use it to improve existing cancer treatments, or even to develop new ones. In another trial, I created a mutation in Bcl-B which stopped the ubiquitination process. Cancer cells containing this mutant Bcl-B turned out to be more resistant to chemotherapy than cancer cells with an unmutated Bcl-B. If we find a way to encourage Bcl-B ubiquitination as much as possible, that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy. We might be able to restart apoptosis in cancer cells that way, in order to kill them.'

Do you feel at home in research?

‘Absolutely. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Scientific research can be very challenging though. You come up with a hypothesis and look at whether it’s right or not. If not, you might have learned something, but usually those findings aren’t publishable. Say your car is behaving oddly, and you think the carburettor is at fault. If you look at it and find it’s not the cause, you haven’t made any progress. Research can be like that. Hard work doesn’t always translate into results. But that’s what makes it interesting.’

So you’ll be pursuing further research?

‘Yes. In late May I’ll be going to the US with my girlfriend, who has also just been awarded her doctorate. A few months ago we decided on four places in the US where we’d like to do our postdocs. We then went to all of them for talks. It was a drawn-out, exciting process and we weren’t always in sync. At one point I had opportunities in Boston and San Francisco, and my girlfriend had some in San Diego and New York. Luckily it all worked out in the best possible way we could have imagined: we’re both going to do a postdoc in Boston. I’ll be doing research into kinases, which are proteins in the cell which stick a chemical group, a phosphate group, onto other proteins. This plays an important role in communication between proteins. Now all I need to do is rent out our house in Utrecht and find a place to live in Boston. But I’m sure that will work out.’

Author: Carin Röst