Jan van Hest (1968) studied Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at TU/e and obtained his doctorate at the same university under the guidance of Spinoza Laureate Bert Meijer. Following a postdoc position in the United States, he worked at DSM for a few years before he was appointed as professor in Nijmegen. In 2016 he returned to TU/e, where he is currently director of the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS). Van Hest 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.
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.
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 new Spinoza Laureate intends to use the grant to, among other things, make artificial cells that can instruct living cells to show certain behavior, he says. “They could, for example, stimulate a living cell to grow into a muscle cell or bone cell; this could be of great value to regenerative medicine. And these kinds of communicating cells could also be used for controlled drug delivery.” The great thing about such a grant is that it enables you to conduct exploratory research, Van Hest says. “Without having to demonstrate its potential for success first, as you do when applying for a grant. We can now set up exciting new research lines.”
In previous years, Spinoza Laureates were announced during a festive ceremony at Bessensap, an annual event at which representatives from science and the press come together. Since everything is different however this year due to the corona pandemic, the announcement was made in a press release. The formal award ceremony – scheduled to take place on 30 September in the Royal Theatre in The Hague – won’t be a lavish occasion either this year, Van Hest fears.
“According to the guidelines, a hundred people would be allowed to attend; with six winners, including the Stevin Prizes, you can’t invite that many people per person, but we’re looking into ways to maybe do something with a livestream to the Blauwe Zaal.” A party for tomorrow (Saturday 20 June) in the Zwarte Doos has also been organized, the biochemist was informed. “Bert Meijer, who was involved in the nomination for the Spinoza Prize together with Luc Brunsveld, arranged that.” Owing to circumstances, that too will be a small gathering, divided over two sessions.
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 related Stevin Prizes for societal impact are awarded to Linda Steg (University of Groningen) and Ton Schumacher (Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and 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.