Kristiaan Wouters Kristiaan Wouters Sacha Ruland

White blood cells in disguise - Kristiaan Wouters

Written by  Femke Kools Friday, 24 August 2012 10:59
The link between overweight and arteriosclerosis

Could you describe your research?
I’ve just received a Veni grant to study the link between arteriosclerosis and overweight. We know that overweight people have a greater chance of developing cardiovascular diseases. And it’s agreed that this is at least partly caused by chronic inflammation in the fatty tissue of overweight people. But what’s actually happening at the cell level is not yet clear.

My hypothesis is that macrophages play an important role here. These are white blood cells that rid the body of cell debris and damaged or old cells. They’re present throughout the body and are important for our immune system. In overweight people, if the fat tissue gets even fattier, macrophages seem to change into a different cell type. They take on the guise, as it were, of a ‘dendritic cell’, which can control our entire immune system. I’ll be investigating whether they can also do the same things as a dendritic cell, such as cause further inflammation, which in turn leads to disorders like arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases. So my two main questions are: do macrophages in fatty tissue behave in the same way as dendritic cells, and do they indeed increase arteriosclerosis in an animal model?

How did you come across this research theme?
My PhD research, which I finished in 2008, focused on liver inflammation. Over the last few years I’ve had several grants to support my work at the Institut Pasteur de Lille on the role of the p16 protein in macrophages. And so now I’m going to study the role of macrophages in fatty tissue.

How do you do this?
My research takes place in labs, where so far I’ve worked both in vitro with cells and with testing animals. But with the embedding of my research in the Department of Internal Medicine, the lab of Professor Schalkwijk and Professor Stehouwer, I’ll get my first chance to study human materials such as plasma samples, which are being gathered in various large cohort studies.

What is the societal relevance of your research?
Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death, and in the coming 20 to 30 years obesity will become a huge problem. If we can identify biomarkers for an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases in obese people, they may be able to start using cholesterol-lowering products as a preventive measure, or perhaps even specific anti-inflammatories. So my research could provide a powerful detection method. The discovery of previously unknown mechanisms at work in the fat tissue could also later lead to the development of new types of medication.

How multidisciplinary is your research?
It mainly has to do with the biomedical sciences. The novelty of this study, at least for me, is that it’s the first time I’ll get to work with human materials, rather than just cells or testing animals. So that makes it especially interesting for me.

The Dies theme is ‘Inspired by quality’. Who or what inspires you?
I really enjoy thinking about new ideas and hypotheses. That’s what makes research fun to me – the fact that curiosity is rewarded. And of course one day I’d love to have my own research group and a fixed workplace, because once my Veni grant runs out it’s not clear where I’ll end up.

Why did you choose to do this research, at this university in particular?
With research schools like NUTRIM and CARIM, UM is very much on the map when it comes to research on cardiovascular diseases and obesity. On top of that, I think UM is a great work environment. I did my studies here, including my PhD. I think the mentality here in the Netherlands is fantastic – it’s really open and direct, certainly by Belgian standards. I feel at home here. And as for my wife and I, all our friends and family live in the area, which is not unimportant. It was time to come back.
 as being a researcher and lecturer, he’s a practitioner as well – he treats the so-called “untreatable borderliners”, to show that it is indeed possible. That’s a great combination that I find really inspiring.




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