Laura Heitman appointed as Professor of Molecular Pharmacology
As of 1 November, Laura Heitman has been appointed full Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research (LACDR). Heitman has been working on the understanding and improvement of drug-receptor interactions in early drug discovery. ‘My ultimate aim is to make medicines work better and to decrease clinical attrition rates to benefit the patient.’
During her bachelor’s in 1999, Heitman already got fascinated by the fact that a small molecule can modulate the function of a large protein: the drug target. In order for a drug to work, it has to bind to a target in the body. This usually is a protein in a cell. By modulating the function of this protein, the drug can combat undesired activities.
Heitman: ‘The better the binding between the drug and its target, the more effective the medicine.’ Heitman specialised in G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). These proteins are bound to the cell membrane and currently the most exploited and successful class of drug targets – more than thirty per cent of all drugs act on these proteins. ‘I’m looking for novel concepts in drug discovery’, she says. ‘Therefore I investigate how to optimise a drug’s target binding kinetics. That means: how long a drug binds to its target as opposed to how well. Furthermore, I look for new sites on a protein from where a drug can modulate its targets.’
Furthermore, Heitman believes target binding kinetics can be useful to predict a drug’s performance before going into clinical trials. Including this parameter, pharmacologists can better preselect the molecules with the most potential, cutting out candidate drugs that would fail along the testing process. ‘This could ultimately help to decrease clinical attrition rates,’ Heitman adds.
Fundamental research with translational value
Heitman combines and integrates her expertise in receptor pharmacology with different expertise and research domains, such as biology, organic chemistry and computational chemistry. ‘It’s right at the intersection of various disciplines where the most interesting and relevant innovations are done, which ultimately benefit the patient and society.’
Besides doing fundamental research, the concepts that Heitman works on also have a large translational potential. Hence, she keeps a keen eye on collaborating with research hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to go from an idea to proof-of-concept.
A good example of this translational nature is the work Heitman carries out for The Oncode Institute, a national collaboration of key cancer researchers in the Netherlands. Heitman was selected to join Oncode in 2019. Since then, she has been applying part of her research lines to cancer. Although the concepts she works on are widely applicable, cancer research has sparked her particular interest.
‘It’s becoming clear that GPCRs and their subsequent signalling mechanisms play an important role in regulating cellular functions that are related to known hallmarks of cancer,’ Heitman explains. GPCRs are over-expressed on cancer cells themselves and in the tumour microenvironment. Moreover, recent work has shown that GPCR’s themselves are often mutated in the case of cancer. Heitman: ‘This fuels my interest in understanding the role of GPCRs in tumour biology with the ultimate aim to efficaciously target them.’
The career of Laura Heitman
1999: started Bachelor in Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences at Leiden University
2004: Master in Bio-Pharmaceutical Sciences at Leiden University
2009: PhD in Molecular Pharmacology
2009: Tenure Track: associate professor at Division of Drug Discovery and Safety at LACDR
2014: Tenured associate professor at Division of Drug Discovery and Safety at LACDR
Research grants: IMI-K4DD/IMI-RESOLUTE, and NWO-VENI, NWO-VIDI and Oncode grant for personal excellence
Current research team consists of seven PhD students, two Post-Docs and two technicians. Successfully graduated twelve PhD students so far
Authorship on over 95 scientific papers, including one in Science (2012) and in Nature (2016). First or corresponding author on over 40 of these papers. H-index of 34 and the total number of citations is over 3500 (both according to Google Scholar)
Frequently invited speaker (>60 lectures) at pharmacology conferences, but also at pharmaceutical companies, universities and knowledge institutes
Multiple awards, including the ‘2017 MedChemComm Emerging Investigator’-award, runner up for the ‘2018 EFMC Young Medicinal Chemist in Academia’-award and runner up for the ‘2018 Prix Galien Research’-award.
Education: Active in all years of the Bachelor's and Master's programmes in Bio-pharmaceutical Sciences, as a mentor and as a lecturer in practicals and lectures. In addition, also active in the Master's programme in Pharmacy, as a lecturer and as chairman of the board of examiners.