Collaboration LUMC and Universitas Indonesia: new insight on parasitic worms and their effect on the immune system and inflammatory diseases

19 September 2017• PRESSRELEASE

PhD candidates Maria Kaisar and Dicky Tahapary left their native Indonesia for a PhD programme at the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC). On September 19th they both defended their PhD thesis. They look back at an informative and fruitful time and take the knowledge they gained back to Indonesia.

Maria Kaisar and Dicky Tahapary.Leaving behind her husband and relatives, Maria Kaisar came to the LUMC with a clear goal in mind: to research parasitic worms (helminths) and their interactions with the human immune system. The ultimate goal of this research is to find a potential drug based on a molecule made by these parasites to treat inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes, asthma and coeliac disease. Worldwide more than 1.5 billion people are infected with helminths. Such an infection has disadvantages and advantages, because it causes diseases but the parasite also ensures that the immune system of the host does not react unnecessarily or overreact.

Kaisar’s research consisted of two parts: the  use of molecular diagnostics to detect parasitic infections and to see at the molecular level mechanisms through which the immune system responds to the helminths. “I have looked at how parasites activate the immune system. I especially studied dendritic cells, immune cells which are specialized in the ability to present pathogens to other immune cells in the body. They can recognize and process pathogens and then present them to the other cells. These cells then activate all kinds of processes in the body.”

Medication still in the future

And, has she found a new medication? “No, not yet. This is still in the future.” She does however take the knowledge she has gained in the past 4.5 years back to Indonesia. “The research facilities at the LUMC are  very advanced and have enabled me to perform the complex experiments I did in my projects. Fundamental research like this is still lagging behind in my country.” Kaisar will certainly miss the LUMC. “It was a great experience overall and I hope to continue the long-standing collaboration between Indonesia and The Netherlands.”

Treatment against worms

During the first half of his PhD, Dicky Tahapary, along with his Dutch PhD colleague Karin de Ruiter, regularly travelled back for their research to the island of Flores in his native country. A rural area where most people are infected with parasitic worms in the gastro-intestinal tract. “We knew from previous research that people who suffer from such an infection, do not so often contract diabetes type 2. But it was unclear whether there was a cause-effect relationship.”

Therefore, a large scale population-based trial was initiated in which all people in three villages of Flores were randomly treated either with a drug against the worms or with a placebo. “After the treatment, we observed a rise of insulin resistance in the people treated against worms. These people then will have a higher risk of having diabetes type 2 in the future”, he explains.

Monitoring signs of diabetes

It is a bit of a mixed message: do we have to stop the treatment against worm infection to prevent diabetes type 2? “That question is asked very often and it is a difficult one. I do think that those people we give pills against worms should be checked more often for signs of diabetes.” 

A nice job for the PhD candidate himself, because now his PhD programme is completed he will return with his wife and three sons to Jakarta to work as an internist. But Tahapary does not leave the research behind completely. “I intend not only to strengthen the well-established collaboration with the department of parasitology, but also to expand the collaboration with the department of clinical epidemiology  and endocrinology of the LUMC, so that we can do further research. The scientific environment in the Netherlands is very stimulating, and I wish to introduce that in Jakarta. I think that this can be in part achieved by increasing the exchange of students, researchers, and clinicians from both the LUMC and the Faculty of Medicine Universitas Indonesia.”

Maria Kaisar and Dicky Tahapary came to Leiden as part of the long-term cooperation between the LUMC and the Faculty of Medicine of the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta. Both see the benefits of this intensive cooperation and together with prof. Maria Yazdanbakhsh Tahapary elaborated on the collaboration during the opening of the Asian Library of Leiden University on September 14th.

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