Prof. J.J.C. Neefjes
Department of Cell & Chemical Biology
NWO contribution: EUR 2.500.000
Information about Prof. Neefjes (source: NWO website)
Sjaak (Jacques) Neefjes (1952), Professor of Chemical Immunology at Leiden University and the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), also head of the Department of Cellular and Chemical Biology (LUMC), is a multidisciplinary scientific all-rounder. He develops ingenious techniques and combines insights from chemistry, cell biology, immunology and biochemistry to visualise and understand processes of cellular life. That leads to fundamental discoveries about the functioning of the immune system and uncovers new mechanisms of drug action, which result in clinical applications for cancer and infectious diseases, and for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatism and multiple sclerosis.
Neefjes is responsible for various significant breakthroughs that have had a tremendous impact on a wide range of disciplines. For example, he fathomed the complexity of the processing of antigens (substances that elicit a response of the immune system) in infected cells. He discovered that many newly made proteins are immediately broken down again, as a result of which the immune system can respond rapidly to infections. This fundamental research resulted in the development of radioimmunotherapy for the treatment of specific tumours.
Neefjes also discovered how bacterial infections, such as salmonella, can cause cancer. As salmonella infections are treatable, these findings can be translated into a preventative approach for certain types of cancer.
Another discovery concerned anthracyclines, a category of cancer drugs that many patients only use for a short time because, otherwise, they cause heart damage. Neefjes demonstrated that certain anthracyclines not only kill cancer cells by causing breaks in the DNA, as had been thought until then. They also damage the chromatin (the “packaging material” of DNA) by dismantling the nucleosomes (protein spheres the DNA is wrapped around) and leaving certain regions of the DNA exposed.
He demonstrated that substances which are only capable of this second activity are, in principle, just as effective in treating cancer but without detrimental side effects. Thanks to this discovery, cancer patients can soon be treated for longer, the treatment of patients with a reduced heart function should be possible, and cancer survivors could enjoy a better quality of life. This discovery resulted in Neefjes deciding to restart the production of a “forgotten” drug, the non-cardiotoxic cytostatic aclarubicin, and also a non-toxic variant of doxorubicin, the drug with which cancer patients are currently treated.
The Spinoza Committee calls Neefjes ‘an outstanding scientist with an intelligent audacity’. The professor played a key role in two patented technologies and is a member of various scientific societies, such as the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities, the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and the Academia Europaea. Furthermore, he is a member of dozens of juries and scientific advisory committees at European institutes and universities. He leads the NWO Gravitation programme Institute for Chemical Immunology (ICI), is affiliated with the Oncode Institute and has been awarded various grants, including an ERC Advanced Grant on two occasions. Many of his former PhDs and postdocs have since become professors, group leaders or assistant or associate professors. Neefjes is a member of the scientific advisory councils of the Dutch Cancer Society and Kika (Children Cancer-free Foundation) and is also active in the Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology. He regularly appears in the media to talk about his research.
In the future, Neefjes wants to investigate when salmonella bacteria initiate the last step in the development of intestinal cancer. And he also hopes to work together with social scientists to prevent cancer by setting up smoking prevention programmes for high school pupils. Thanks to the Spinoza Prize, he now has the funding for what is possibly his most important project: introducing two less toxic anthracyclines – aclarubicin and modified doxorubicin
(Photography: Studio Oostrum/Hollandse Hoogte)