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Spinoza Prize for Leiden cell biologist, immunologist and chemist Sjaak Neefjes

Sjaak Neefjes, Professor of Chemical Immunology at Leiden University, will receive the NWO Spinoza Prize this year. The Spinoza Committee called Neefjes an ‘exceptional researcher whose intelligence is matched by his boldness’. He will use the 2.5 million euro prize to pursue his research into cancer drugs that have less harmful side-effects.

Neefjes is Professor of Chemical Immunology at Leiden University and Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) and head of the Department of Cell and Chemical Biology at LUMC. We spoke to him a week before the prize was announced.

How did you hear that you were one of the 2020 Spinoza laureates?

‘I was chairing a meeting of the ERC Consolidator Grand Committee when I received a call from an unknown number. I was busy, so I didn’t answer. When I got another call from the same number the next day, I thought “Well, they must want me for some reason” and picked up.  It was the president of NWO who’d called to give me the good news. It was a huge surprise, of course. The most important thing is to believe in your own work, but it’s very nice to have others recognise it too.’

How would you describe yourself as a researcher?

‘The NWO documents refer to me as a jack-of-all-trades. I agree with that description. I started out as a chemist, but I think it’s very important to combine our knowledge of chemistry with our knowledge of cell biology and immunology. Probing the boundaries and working with physicians and researchers in other disciplines produces the best results. I’m trying to pass that message on to everyone who works for me.’

How will you spend the Spinoza Prize, the 2.5 million euros?

‘I know what I’m going to spend the first 700 to 800 thousand on. I’m working with a team to get a cancer drug back on the market that has no or fewer harmful side effects. I’m referring to anthracyclines. These are drugs that cancer patients can only take for a short time or not at all because they cause serious side effects, such as heart failure. We’ve been working with Hermen Overkleeft of the Leiden Institute of Chemistry IC to design a less toxic version. We can’t patent it, so no one is interested in producing it. Normally, that means development comes to a halt. But we’re cooperating with Hermen to make sure that patients have access to this drug anyway. As you can imagine, that’s very expensive, so the prize is like winning the jackpot for us. It means we can develop this drug for cancer patients in an academic setting.’

Stevin Prize for Ton Schumacher

Besides Prof. Neefjes winning the Spinoza Prize, there has been more good news for Leiden. Ton Schumacher, Professor of Immunotechnology at Leiden University and Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) and group leader in the Molecular Oncology & Immunology Division at the Netherlands Cancer Institute-Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, has been awarded an NWO Stevin Prize.

About the Spinoza Prize and the Stevin Prize

The NWO Spinoza Prize is the highest award in Dutch science. Each year, NWO awards Spinoza Prizes to three or four researchers working in the Netherlands who are regarded as among the very best by international standards. The Stevin

Prize is the highest distinction in science for researchers or a two- or three-person team working in the Netherlands who have been particularly successful at leveraging knowledge for the benefit of society. NWO awards a maximum of two Stevin Prizes a year.

The Spinoza and Stevin laureates each receive 2.5 million euros for research and/or activities related to knowledge utilisation.

Credits: NWO, fotografie Studio Oostrum Hollandse Hoogte

NWO Spinoza Prize for Prof Sjaak Neefjes (English subtitles)

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