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Interview: dr. N.W.C.J. van de Donk

dr. N.W.C.J. van de Donk

Area of expertise

Multiple Myeloma, Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS), Smouldering multiple myeloma and immunotherapy.

Current position

Internist-Haematologist at VU medical center, Amsterdam

Niels van de Donk, MD, PhD is a haematologist at the VU university medical centre in Amsterdam. In 2017 he received the Swammerdam price, which is a prestigious prize for medical researchers and clinicians in the Netherlands. The award is allocated by the Dutch Society of Haematology to a talented researcher younger than 45 years in the field of haematology.

dr. N.W.C.J. van de Donk

How did your career as a researcher develop?

‘My career as a researcher began in Utrecht before I started with my internships. The structure of the study medicine was different back then. I received the title Drs. after my first four years of medicine. It was ordinary to do your two years of internships afterwards, but I chose to work first as a researcher. The research itself focussed on multiple myeloma.

I enrolled in a PhD program after one year of research. My promotion took part mainly in the laboratory performing flow cytometry, protein related techniques, PCR and so on. We tried to develop new treatment options for multiple myeloma by inhibiting protein modifications.

I continued doing research during my specialization and I received a fellowship from KWF after I graduated as an internist-haematologist. I went to Dana-Farber Cancer institute at Boston, which is the cancer hospital of Harvard University. The aim of my scientific research was to find out how cancer cells develop resistance to immunotherapy. I returned to Utrecht after two years. VU medical center offered our team more research possibilities and therefore we moved to Amsterdam.’

Why did you choose multiple myeloma as research subject?

‘My first research was in multiple myeloma and interested me from the first moment. Mainly because it is easy to take cancer cell samples of blood and bone marrow. You can examine these samples in the laboratory and perform all kinds of tests. Treatment and research in myeloma does not solely focus on killing the cancer cells, since there are many ways to eradicate the cancer by targeting the tumor microenvironment. The environment of the tumor plays an important role as it supports tumor growth and protection against chemotherapy and other apoptotic stimuli. Moreover, the immune system is often inhibited in cancer patients and it’s modulation can also be a strategy for anticancer therapy. The research team in Utrecht was very stimulating and inspirational, that made me very enthusiastic as well!’

You received the Swammerdamprice in 2017. What does this price mean to you?

‘I got the price for the translational research that I performed in a large research team. I received the award, but it is of course a reward for the whole team. We looked at how several novel antibodies can be applied to kill multiple myeloma cells and how resistance against them arises. The award-money will be used to continue and expand the research.’

What are your expectations for the future?

‘The prognosis for multiple myeloma has improved significantly. The median survival has increased from 1-2 years to 7 years in the last fifty years. But there is still a big difference between patients with an indolent form and an aggressive form. I hope that we find new immunotherapy treatments through research that will not only increase the median survival but also increase the cure fraction of multiple myeloma. The percentage of people that we can cure nowadays is around 10-15%. I think that we can fulfil this goal by immunotherapy such as daratumumab and new forms of treatment such as specific antibodies that can attract T-cells to a tumor or CAR T-cells. Research is making a lot of progress. There are more new medicines for multiple myeloma approved by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) and EMA (European Medicines Agency) during the last years than for any other form of cancer. That is why multiple myeloma is used as a model on how to develop new medicines/immunotherapy for other types of cancer.’

Can you give the students a Do and Don’t based on the experience you gained during your research career?

Do: ‘If you find a topic you like, then keep on doing things that are related to that subject. Do not switch too much between topics. If you stick to one thing, you eventually will become an expert in it, no matter how small or big that subject might be. It could be a specific disease, therapy or even a protein.’

Don’t: ‘If you do not like research, do not do it. Do not invest your time into a PhD just to get into a specialization. Rather spend your time developing other skills, such as managing, educating or patient care. We need different kinds of doctors and therefore doctors with a different set of skills.’

[headline_box text=”Résumé”]

1995-1999        Medicine: University of Utrecht
1999-2003        PhD, thesis focused on new treatment strategies for multiple myeloma
2011                 Registration as internist-haematologist
2011-2013        Postdoc at Dana-Farber Cancer institute at Boston
2014-present    Haematologist at VU university medical center Amsterdam

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