13 June 2019

My name is Johan van der Vlag. I am Dutch. Currently I am an associate professor in Experimental Nephrology and head of the Nephrology Research Laboratory of the department of Nephrology, theme Renal disorders. In addition, I am teaching, and chairing the personal grant committee of the Radboudumc as well as the Board of Examiners of the MMD research master of Radboudumc.

When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? Can you tell us something about your child years. 

I was born and raised in Assen, the capital of the Provence Drenthe. The city is surrounded by beautiful nature and rural areas. The sheep herds on the heather fields were close by. Also the thousands years old Hunebeds were very near. I was a happy child and was never bored. As a very young child I liked to become a professional clown in the circus. Later on during my youth it became clear that I liked to engineer and investigate things.

What was your previous academic training, where did you study and why that study? 

At the end of high school I did not know what study to choose, since I like so many things. I almost enlisted as Navy officer, since sailing the world attracted me. Since I liked to dig into the ground (underlying the Hunebeds), I also considered Archaeology. At that time, mid eighties, I also became aware that since a few years we were able to manipulate DNA with restriction enzymes and ligases. The possible outlook of application of gene manipulation into the, just emerging, new field of Biotechnology and/or Medicine attracted me very much. So, at the end I studied (Molecular) Biology at the University of Groningen. Thereafter, I obtained a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Amsterdam, followed by 3 different post-doctoral training periods at different Institutions.

The RIMLS motto is: ‘Today’s molecules for tomorrow’s medicine’. What does this mean for you? 

The RIMLS motto perfectly fits my research. By unraveling the molecular and immunological processes underlying kidney diseases, I aim to identify new therapeutic targets to treat kidney diseases and/or to find possible biomarkers to predict outcome of treatment.

Who is your great example as scientists? And please give a motivation why.

Many scientists have inspired me, so hard to pick one. I f I have to mention one it is Charles Darwin. He was a self-made scientist, who based on many observations in nature (during a long travel on board of a Navy ship) postulated the theory of Natural Selection and Evolution, thereby explaining the diversity at the species level on Earth. Now we know this principle is also applicable at the molecular level.

Which research discovery that you have made has made you most proud? 

I do not like to brag about my scientific achievements. If I have to pick one, it was the discovery as a post-doc (1999) that the EED protein, present in the EED/EZH2 mammalian Polycomb repressive complex, was interacting with HDACs. In several collaborative projects during the last 19 years, I have identified heparanase-mediated loss of glomerular heparan sulfate as a crucial mechanism in the development of glomerular diseases, including diabetic nephropathy and glomerulonephritis. We recently identified a heparanase inhibitor with a high potential for clinical translation. Interestingly, we recently found that the EED/EZH2 complex is also regulating heparanase expression.

Given unlimited finance what experiment would you perform?

Heparan sulfate (HS) is one of my key interests. HS is the most diverse biomolecule in the universe, and is able to specifically bind hundreds of different factors. Therefore, HS is involved in virtual all biological and pathogenic processes in the human body. The draw-back of HS research is that there is still no method available to completely sequence an intact HS chains. Given unlimited financial means I would like to develop HS sequencing and profiling methods. This could contribute to the identification of specific HS sequence-ligand interactions, and their corresponding biological/pathological functions, in the context of renal diseases and transplant immunology. If there is money left I also would like the role of HS in the nucleus.

What does your working area (desk, office) look like and what does it say about you (or your research)? 

My lab bench was/is always highly organized and tidy, since that is in my opinion a prerequisite for proper research. I think my office is a kind of organized too, although some people have another opinion about that...

Nominate a colleague to be in the spotlight and what would you like to ask him or her?

I want to nominate Raphaël Duivenvoorden. A new colleague that just joint our group with an Hypathia grant. I would like to ask him what his experiences with Radboudumc are up to now, but also what his research ambitions are.

What type of person are you, quick insights:

a) Mac or PC?                                : PC
b) Theater or cinema?                 : Both
c) Dine out or dine in?                 : Dine out
d) Ferrari or Fiat?                         : Peugeot and Citroën
e) Shopaholic or chocoholic?     : Bitter Balls
f) Culture or Nature                     : Nature

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