LUMC professor Maria Yazdanbakhsh receives Spinoza Prize

3 September 2021• PRESSRELEASE

Leiden professor of Cellular Immunology of Parasitic Infections Maria Yazdanbakhsh receives the prestigious NWO Spinoza Prize this year. This, in many ways, border-crossing scientist contributes with her research to more effective vaccines against parasitic infections and better medication for inflammatory diseases. She will spend the 2.5 million euros she receives on, among other things, developing young talent, with an emphasis on diversity.

Yazdanbakhsh has worked at the LUMC for more than 30 years and, in addition to being a professor at the Leiden University Center for Infectious Disease (LU-CID), is also head of the department of Parasitology and scientific coordinator of the centre for Controlled Human Infections in Leiden.

Spectacular discovery

The Spinoza Commission calls Yazdanbakhsh a worldwide scientific pioneer in discovering ways in which parasites influence our immune system. One of her most spectacular discoveries was that parasitic infections not only make people sick, but can also make the immune system more resilient to inflammatory diseases such as allergies or type 2 diabetes. She will therefore use part of the Spinoza Prize to gain more insight into how micro-organisms and parasites influence our immune system, and hopes to eventually translate these insights into the clinic. 

Less protection in Africa

Yazdanbakhsh has also played a major role in the development of candidate vaccines against malaria, consisting of genetically modified parasites. A vaccine technique in which Leiden plays a pioneering role, partly thanks to Yazdanbakhsh. Nowadays, Yazdanbakhsh focuses mainly on understanding why such a vaccine offers 100% protection in Europe, but only 30% in Africa. This research is also related to the question why there are relatively few allergies, autoimmune diseases or metabolic syndromes in Africa, which Yazdanbakhsh also hopes to find an answer to. 

Internationalisation 

The Spinoza laureate is involved in both fundamental research in the Leiden laboratories and clinical studies and field research in African and Asian countries. In addition to her scientific contribution in these countries, she has also ensured that the research capacity of groups of researchers in Indonesia and various African countries such as Ghana, Gabon, Senegal and Uganda has been strengthened. She also plays a crucial role in maintaining long-term collaborations with scientists in these countries, where she is also a visiting professor.

A team effort

In other words, a Spinoza Prize is more than deserved. Yazdanbakhsh likes to emphasise that she could not have done this without her team. "Receiving a Spinoza Prize is an enormous honour, not only for me but also for my fantastic team. Without them, this would not have been possible."  She says she wants to use the money to offer young talent a chance and give more depth to her team's research, both in Leiden and other countries. "I also view this prize as recognition of how important it is to establish international collaborations with developing countries."  

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