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Making the invisible visible with ‘click chemistry’

Sander van Kasteren (Professor of Molecular Immunology) makes the invisible visible. He can follow processes in our bodies with the aid of molecules that he can click together. In his inaugural lecture, he will explain more about the ‘molecules in a jar’ that he makes.

Van Kasteren and his colleagues use chemistry to make invisible processes in the cell visible. They do so with ‘click chemistry’, a technique that makes it possible to click molecules together like Lego. This allows researchers to click luminous molecules onto the body’s molecules to track processes there. The challenge is to find molecules that only react with the molecule you want to attach them to, so they don’t interfere with the body’s own reactions.

Once they have found these molecules, scientists will be able to study how our immune system responds to vaccines, for example. ‘We will be able to see how quickly a vaccine breaks down’, Van Kasteren explains. ‘And we will be able to track why one piece of vaccine activates the immune system whereas another does not.’ This will ultimately allow for the development of better vaccines for diseases such as cancer and chronic viral infections.


Van Kasteren believes that service is key to his research because he puts himself at the service of the field of immunology, the study of the immune system. He therefore hopes that his discipline of Molecular Immunology (which looks at our immune system at the molecular level) will eventually merge into that of Immunology. ‘I want to make it possible for immunologists to look differently at immune cells so they can understand them better. That’s why I like to work with others too.’

Van Kasteren often talks to researchers from other fields to see what questions and problems they face. ‘I try to solve these with a chemical approach. I want what I develop to reach the right people and to be really useful.’ To ensure that as many people as possible can use the ‘molecules in a jar’ that the professor and his colleagues create, they publish everything open access. ‘People really appreciate that.’

Abolish academic awards for individuals

The importance of collaboration is also reflected in Van Kasteren’s inaugural lecture in which he calls for the abolition of academic awards for individual researchers. ‘I do all my work together with others, as do most other researchers. So why should one individual receive an award? Only ten per cent of people manage to secure a grant, while much more than that ten per cent are good researchers. I think creating a difference between the haves and the have-nots is detrimental to scientific progress. I myself would not be working as a professor without the support of my institute, faculty and colleagues.’

Sander van Kasteren will give his inaugural lecture Chemical Adventures in Immunology on 15 December at 16.00. The lecture will be livestreamed.

Text: Dagmar Aarts

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