Cisca Wijmenga, Professor of Human Genetics the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Medicine and the University Medical Center Groningen, is one of the winners of the Spinoza Prize 2015. She received the top Dutch research award mainly for her work on unravelling the genetic background to gluten intolerance (coeliac disease).
‘It is a huge honour and recognition of the work that our group has been doing for the past 20 years,’ says Professor Wijmenga. The genetics of gluten intolerance has always been at the forefront of her research work. ‘We knew nothing about it when I started, now we have identified about half the DNA sites which play a part in the development of this disease.’
It appears that cells in the immune system become overactive in patients with coeliac disease. It confirms a theory put forward by Wijmenga some ten years ago: that the basis for coeliac disease may be common to other autoimmune diseases, like rheumatism, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease. ‘It could mean that a treatment which works for one of these diseases would also be suitable for other autoimmune diseases.’
It is a matter of patience, however, to make progress in the study of coeliac disease. ‘The impact on the daily lives of patients is still small. It could easily be another twenty years before this type of research leads to a specific treatment.’ Professor Wijmenga sees the Spinoza Prize also as recognition for the thousands of patients who have taken part in her research. ‘My dream is that one day there will be a simple test for coeliac disease. At the moment seven out of eight patients suffering from the disease don’t even realize that they have it.’
The condition causes general symptoms, such as tiredness. ‘Sometimes we discover coeliac disease in family members of patients who themselves report that they have no problems. They think that tiredness is simply part of their lives.’ Once on a gluten-free diet they often see a huge improvement.
Cisca Wijmenga is investigating the link between genetics and health in other projects too. For example, she led the national ‘Het genoom van Nederland’ (The Dutch genome) project which analyzed the DNA of 250 groups of three, comprising two parents and one child. One surprising outcome was that many people turned out to have pathogenic mutations but had not become sick.
‘Then you want to know why some people do get sick and others don’t,’ Wijmenga says. The Groningen project Lifelines offers an ideal way of investigating that. Groningen researchers have been following the health of 167,000 people living in the three northern provinces of the Netherlands. This will show which people with a genetic risk do actually become sick.
Professor Wijmenga will reveal how she intends to spend the € 2.5 million when the prize is presented on 14 September. ‘That’s something I will be carefully thinking about over the summer.’ There is no shortage of ideas. ‘Using Lifelines to determine the root causes of coeliac disease, for example. But I am also thinking of research on medical therapies that are specifically geared to the genetic profile and other aspects of the patient, personalized medicine.’
She emphasizes that the Spinoza Prize is also important for keeping her research group going. ‘I mainly set the parameters. The young people in the lab do most of the work. This prize money means that I can give them room to develop further and become independent researchers.’
Cisca Wijmenga (1964) has been Professor of Human Genetics at the University Medical Center Groningen and the University of Groningen since 2007. Prior to that she was a professor at the University of Utrecht. She studied biology at the University of Groningen and was awarded her PhD cum laude by the University of Leiden in 1993. During the early years of her career she became fascinated by the vast amount of information held in DNA. She worked also as a postdoc in the laboratory of the American geneticist Francis Collins, who at the time was leading the Human Genome Project, the consortium that was the first to decipher the human genome.
As Head of the Department of Genetics she leads a team of about 250 people working in the clinic and in research. She has authored or co-authored more than 400 scientific papers that have been cited more than 27,000 times. She was appointed member of the KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) in 2012.
The Spinoza Prize is a personal award for top researchers with an international reputation. The winners each receive €2.5 million to spend on research of their own choice for five years. An NWO Spinoza Prize is an honorary award in recognition of what the winners have achieved in their academic career, as well as an incentive to promote further research. In de past years RUG Spinoza winners were Theunis Piersma (2014), Ben Feringa (2004), Dirkje Postma (2000) and George Sawatzky (1996).
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