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New protein inhibitors against cancer? Unilever Research Prize for Aukje Beers

Aukje Beers combined theory and practice, as well as chemistry, biology, and computer models. In this way, she discovered two protein inhibitors during her master’s project that could contribute to the development of a new cancer drug. For her research, Beers received the Unilever Research Prize on Thursday 23 November.

During her master’s internship for the Chemistry programme, Beers worked on improving a new compound that inhibits the activity of a specific type of enzyme, a so-called kinase. These enzymes are a crucial target in cancer research (see box). ‘I started by conducting research with computer models to come up with new compounds,’ Beers explains. ‘Then I synthesised these substances in the chemistry lab and tested them through biological experiments.’

Kinases and their role in cancer

Kinases are proteins that help transmit signals within the cell: they act as messengers passing information to different parts of our cells. They play a crucial role in regulating various processes in the body, including the growth and division of our cells.

In cancer research, kinases are significant targets because disruptions in their function can lead to abnormal cell growth and the formation of tumours. Researchers are developing kinase inhibitors to inhibit targeted kinases to control cancer cells.

Two interesting compounds

Beers’ hard work led to the discovery of two new inhibitors. ‘One of them shows remarkable activity against the specific protein we want to inhibit,’ she explains. ‘The other substance is more selective, meaning it will have less interaction with other proteins in the body, reducing the chance of side effects.’

Knowledge, independence and determination

‘It was a pleasure to mentor Aukje,’ says medicinal chemist Rob Bosman. ‘She grasps everything quickly, has a lot of knowledge, and combines different fields at a high level.’ Bosman has even more praise. ‘Apart from her master’s project, Aukje also independently delved into researching how inhibiting the enzyme we are studying can induce a kind of dormant state in the cell. Aukje formulated a hypothesis and designed experiments, all based on self-discovered publications. She conducted the experiments herself as well. Despite the results being more complex than expected, her ability to connect publications and test hypotheses demonstrates why she is an excellent researcher.’

New compounds and new goals

Bosman and his ‘new’ master’s students are now taking Beers’ findings further. ‘We are working on new compounds, based on what Aukje proposed in her master’s thesis.’

Beers herself has recently started her PhD research with the Molecular Physiology group. ‘I am using the same techniques as during my master’s, but now for optimising a different compound with a different target. Our goal is to develop a candidate drug for brain cancer or glioblastoma.’ Beers is not certain about her future plans. ‘I’ve just started, and a lot can happen in these four years. I find it hard to predict where I will end up ultimately.’

‘An alteration of failure and success’

Beers considers winning the prize a great honour. ‘In daily practice, science is an alternation of failure and success. It’s always gratifying when, after some time, you can look back on what you have achieved. And it’s even more beautiful when others appreciate your work as well.’

About Unilever Research Prize

The Unilever Research Prize is an annual award presented to young researchers to support scientific talent and showcase Unilever's relationship with Dutch academia. Students are selected if the topic of their master's thesis significantly contributes to one or more of the 'Global Goals' (or Sustainable Development Goals). 2023 marks the 67th year of the Unilever Research Prize.

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