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Ad IJzerman wins prestigious Nauta Pharmacochemistry Award

Professor of Pharmacochemistry Ad IJzerman has won the Nauta Award for his years of research into signal processing proteins that are interesting for the development of new medications: G protein coupled receptors. The prize is awarded every two years for services to pharmacochemistry and chemical biology.

'Incredible surprise'

‘I was scrolling through my email last week when I suddenly saw the message saying I had won the award’, says IJzerman, ‘It was an incredible surprise, a real highlight in these times’. IJzerman has been studying so-called G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) for years: molecular antennas on cells throughout our body. He will receive the Nauta Pharmacochemistry Award for Medicinal Chemistry and Chemical Biology for his complete work in September.

More than 800 different GPCRs exist, and they are involved in at least as many processes in the body. The receptors can bind to important signal molecules like histamine or serotonin. That creates interesting pharmaceutical possibilities and has led to a lot of scientific interest in the receptors.

Ad IJzerman

Eureka moment

Since IJzerman came to Leiden in 1985, a lot has changed: ‘Nobody used to know how caffeine affected the body, except that it kept you awake. We now know that caffeine can bind to a GPCR and stop one of the bodies own molecules, adenosine, from reaching the receptor. Because we know caffeine makes you energetic, we can infer that adenosine causes sleepiness. That turned out to be correct.’

But studying the receptors is not easy. GPCRs have a complicated structure and lie in the middle of fatty membranes. Not the ideal circumstances if you want to get a clear image. But since a few years it has become possible to use crystallography to determine the exact chemical structure of GPCRs. IJzerman: ‘ You can measure whether a compound recognises a receptor, but you only fully understand it when you see how they interact. That is a real eureka moment.’

There remains enough work to be done in the coming years. Besides mapping all structures, IJzerman wants study the duration molecules spend bound to a receptor. The longer the molecule stays attached, the longer the effect is noticeable. That can be a benefit, but for medications with side-effects, shorter might be better.

Award ceremony

The award was not a total surprise for the chemist. IJzerman: ‘I had a suspicion I had been nominated. Just before the nomination deadline, some people were subtly asking for my CV, which turned out be necessary for the nomination. But that fact that I had actually won was a huge surprise.’

The award will be presented during the International Symposium on Medicinal Chemistry in Basel, Switzerland in September. During the symposium, IJzerman will hold a lecture, looking back at his research and forward to the future of the field.

EFMC on why Ad Ijzerman has won the Nauta Award

‘For his leading contributions as a pioneer of GPCR drug discovery and structural biology, and his support of the medicinal chemistry and chemical biology community. His research led to over 450 publications, many of them achieving high international visibility. An excellent mentor and lecturer, Ad IJzerman played an active role in the International LACDR School on Medicinal Chemistry. He also chaired the medicinal chemistry division of the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society, organized many scientific symposia, and led several international research networks.’

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