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Brand-new professor Gerard van Westen wants to cross boundaries

Brand-new professor Gerard van Westen works at the intersection of artificial intelligence and drug development. For the new chair in Artificial Intelligence and Medicinal Chemistry, he uses computer models to make drug development more efficient. Our ultimate goal is a virtual human which allows you to say: if we administer these specific molecules, this is the expected effect.’

For the video interview, Gerard van Westen has to find the silence upstairs, because downstairs the children are doing schoolwork at home. Many parents secretly delight in the fact that the children are going to school again soon, but not Van Westen: ‘Personally, I think it's a pity that it's over, because it's very nice to see them learning and to assist with that.’ Even though he is now a professor, he will certainly continue to make time for them. ‘Luckily, my wife and I can help each other, and I can actually conduct my kind of research anywhere.’

Van Westen does his research mainly on the computer. With advanced computer models, he tries to make the search for new medicines more efficient. Developing a new drug is currently still a long and costly process, in which researchers have to find out through trial and error whether or not a drug meets all the requirements. 'Using artificial intelligence, we invent new molecules and try to predict how these potential drugs will affect our bodies,' says Van Westen.

From trainee to professor

Initially, Van Westen wanted to study medicine, but his mother advised against it: it wouldn't be investigative enough for him. Therefore, on the advice of a friend, he went to study biopharmaceutical sciences in Leiden. That turned out to be a good choice: 'After a year my friend switched to something different, but I stayed', he laughs.

However, during a nine-month internship, Van Westen found out that research in the lab wasn't really his thing. For internship number two he therefore went to Tibotec (now part of Johnson & Johnson), where he got acquainted with computational chemistry. 'It was the first time I really liked my research. I read extra literature, went on in the evenings, and wanted to find out exactly how everything worked.’ In the doctoral and postdoctoral research that followed, Van Westen further immersed himself in artificial intelligence and looked at how he could use computer models in the search for new medicines.

During his tenure track in Leiden, the vacancy for professor AI and Medicinal Chemistry presented itself. 'It was exactly what I had been doing for the past 14 years. I had to try this, and went all the way,' he says enthusiastically. 'I wrote an extensive dossier and research plan for the coming years and got the job! I just succeeded.'

Computational medicine, biology or chemistry

In computational life sciences, computer simulations are used to solve problems in, for example, medicine, pharmaceutical sciences, biology, or chemistry. Using smart computer programs and algorithms, scientists can, for example, develop new molecules or predict and monitor how cancer cells behave.

Crossing boundaries

As a professor, Van Westen's main focus is on research at the intersection of artificial intelligence and other life sciences. 'Here we have recently seen major breakthroughs and innovative insights. Informatics teaches us to look at our data in a completely different way and to follow certain trains of thought.’

Together with computer scientist Michael Emmerich he therefore set up a platform: the Centre for Computational Life Sciences (CCLS). Especially for researchers who combine their own discipline with computer science. 'By combining different areas of expertise, we can look at cross-border problems. If we want to use computer models for drug development, which chemistry is important for this? Which biology and algorithms do we need, and how are we going to combine all this data? If you're missing a certain background, sometimes you just can't make a certain step. What seems unsolvable to you may be very trivial to another.'

Castle in the sky becomes reality

Van Westen: 'I hope and expect that at some point we will be able to roughly predict how a new drug will spread in the body, what proteins it will interact with and what effect it will have. The ultimate goal is a virtual human which allows you to say: if we administer these specific molecules, then this is the expected effect.’

Ten years ago it looked like building castles in the sky, but in the meantime the goal is rapidly approaching. On the basis of the chemical structure we can already predict which of about 1500 proteins in our bodies the medicine will target. That really is a milestone. I didn't expect that to happen in such a short time and I'm very proud of that!'

Diner party at home

Also regarding the current Corona crisis, Van Westen is not sitting still. He uses his computer programs to test whether existing drugs could possibly be used against the virus. He also collaborates in the  Covid moonshot project, where he helps to find new inhibitors for the virus.

Unfortunately, his appointment as a professor could not be celebrated on a grand scale.  Nevertheless, at home he was overwhelmed by flowers, virtual congratulations and postcards. 'We also enjoyed dinner at home with the family, we ordered good food and for dessert we enjoyed cake from the CCLS. It was absolutely special to celebrate it this way. We'll just save the celebration with others for later and make up for it in the future.’

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