Prestigious Spinoza Prize for polymer chemist Jan van Hest

Polymer chemist Jan van Hest receives the Spinoza Prize, the highest distinction in Dutch science. The premium is linked to an amount of 2.5 million euros. Van Hest’s activities include the development of artificial cells and nanomedicines. This is the fourth time that the Spinoza premium has been awarded to a researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). Previous laureates were Rutger van Santen (1995), Bert Meijer (2001) and René Janssen (2015).

Jan van Hest (1968) studied Chemical Engineering at TU/e and obtained his PhD here under supervision of Spinoza laureate Bert Meijer. After a postdoc position in the United States he worked at DSM for several years before becoming a professor in Nijmegen. In 2016 he returned to TU/e, where he is now director of the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS).

He is a pioneer in the area of artificial cells and organelles, the organs of the cell. He develops advanced materials that are partly natural and partly synthetic. The chemist is also working on nanoreactors that can be deployed as artificial organelles in living cells to initiate reactions with enzymes.

A synthetic cell, filled with three different artificial organelles (in three colours). On the left a microscope view; on the right a schematic view.

Van Hest is pioneering a new research field at the interface of polymer chemistry and biology. He was the first to produce polymersomes: empty spheres that can be filled, for example, with proteins or drugs and then inserted into a cell. With this technique, he succeeded in producing an artificial cell that simulates the complex behaviour of a living cell. Van Hest also made polymer constructions that are similar to the cytoplasm in cells and he managed to repair errors in biological cell processes by using semipermeable spheres filled with proteins.

Artificial life

The Spinoza committee praises Van Hest’s unique approach, that combines his broad skills from chemistry, polymer chemistry and biology. “We expect that Van Hest will make significant steps in the coming years to realize his dream of a completely artificial life.”

Van Hest is very happy with the award. “This Spinoza prize is not only a tribute to my work, but also to the polymer sciences, which this year are one hundred years old. In my work I integrate this field with the field of biology, so that we get a better understanding of the molecular structure and function of living cells. We will eventually apply this knowledge in the development of more efficient therapies”.

The brand new Spinoza Laureate wants to use the premium, among other things, to make artificial cells that can instruct living cells to show certain behavior, he says. “They could, for example, encourage a living cell to grow into a muscle cell or a bone cell; this can be of enormous value to regenerative medicine. And you could also use such communicating cells for targeted drug delivery.” The beauty of such a premium is that you can do exploratory research with it, says Van Hest. “Without having to demonstrate in advance that it will work, as is the case when applying for subsidies. So now we can create exciting new lines.”

Rector magnificus Frank Baaijens sees the Spinoza premium as recognition for Van Hest’s important research. “Jan is an excellent scientist who does pioneering work in the field of bio-organic chemistry and biomedical applications. We are therefore very pleased with this award. It shows that the TU/e plays a key role in the development of synthetic cells. It will not only fundamentally change our view of the human body, but will also pave the way for new revolutionary medicines”.

Excellence

The NWO Spinoza Prize has been awarded since 1995 to scientists who have distinguished themselves through their outstanding, pioneering and inspiring work. A total of four scientists will receive the premium this year. Besides Jan van Hest they are Nynke Dekker (TU Delft), Pauline Kleingeld (University of Groningen) and Sjaak Neefjes (Leiden University). The laureates will each receive 2.5 million euros, to be spent on scientific research and activities related to the use of knowledge. The prizes will be awarded on 30 September during a festive meeting in The Hague.

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