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Sander van Kasteren: from molecule builder to Professor of Chemical Immunology

Sander van Kasteren only noticed some small, subtle changes since he was appointed professor on 1 May. Still, he has to get used to the idea, even though he had been working towards the professorship for a few years. ‘I don't quite see myself as a professor yet.'

From now on, Van Kasteren will attend official scientific meetings in his toga. ‘I did so for the first time last month, in a borrowed toga from an emeritus professor. It fitted perfectly, but It was warm though! Although he has had his own research group for years and supervises PhD students, as a 'real professor' he is now also asked to attend the professors' meeting of his institute, the Leiden Institute for Chemical Research (LIC). 

Kind of a final stop

Despite the fact that not much changes in his day-to-day life, Van Kasteren has to get used to the idea. ‘I haven't told all my friends yet, for example the people with whom I worked as a post-doc in Scotland. And it is kind of a final stop as far as my career is concerned. I've been working towards it for a long time.’

Vaccines and arteriosclerosis

That feeling will surely subside soon. His work takes him through a fascinating maelstrom. He actually has two and a half jobs, Van Kasteren says: 'Teaching, research and administrative work.’ He studies how our immune system reacts to vaccines intended to fight diseases such as cancer and chronic viral infections. In another research project, he is finding out how arteriosclerosis occurs.

Started as a molecule builder

‘As an organic chemist, I started out as a molecule builder. The molecules I had to make during my PhD research were very important in the field of immunology. I found that so interesting that I went rabbit-holing, as we call it, and I wanted to know everything about it.’

As a post-doc In Scotland, Van Kasteren did research into dendritic cells: immune cells that bring information about foreign substances to the lymph nodes. There, T cells are produced that clean up these foreign substances. ‘I apply chemistry to understand what happens in dendritic cells. These cells play an important role in vaccinations and are found in the plaques that clog arteries. TB bacteria sometimes hide in dendritic cells.’

Most enjoyable: getting to talk to scientists he can help

‘During poster sessions at immunology congresses, I like talking to researchers who cannot solve certain questions themselves. I then try to think of a chemical approach. In my lab, we use precise chemistry to determine numbers and values. How fast does this happen, how long does it take?’ In this way, Van Kasteren hopes to eventually make a contribution to better vaccines for curing cancer, for example. These work with other dendritic cells than the vaccines that already function well and that protect against diseases such as smallpox or corona.

Nowadays they know how to find him themselves

So how did he do this during the corona crisis? It's not so easy to get to talk at online conferences. ‘Fortunately, that was not so bad. I've become so familiar with the subject that I can follow the literature and find out who I can help. Even better: these days, the scientists I can help know how to find me.’

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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