Joep Geraedts Joep Geraedts Sacha Ruland

‘A suitcase full of memories’

In Body
Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Wednesday, 12 June 2013 00:00
This April, Joep Geraedts retired as professor of Clinical Genetics and Cell Biology at Maastricht University. In the 30-plus years that he worked at UM, the developments in his field have been spectacular. Take the unravelling of the mysteries of DNA, for example: “If you had asked me 30 years ago whether I thought I’d witness that, I would have said no. Something that used to take four years of PhD research can now be done in one afternoon by a computer. In terms of technology there are few obstacles left; the issues we now face are rather on the legal and ethical fronts. I think we’ll be dealing with those for the next 30 years.”
Having repeatedly encountered these legal and ethical obstacles over the years, Geraedts knows what he is talking about. The Maastricht academic hospital (azM) is the first and still the only hospital in the Netherlands to use embryo selection, a technique that continues to spark heated reactions in the media and political sphere. The debate on using embryo selection in breast and ovarian cancer reared its head again in 2008, with Geraedts wading in to share his opinion with newspapers and on television. He has personally met with many politicians over the years – anything for a good cause, he says. “The positive effect of all this media attention was that it put Maastricht on the map as the only centre for embryo selection. Breast and ovarian cancer are our main motivations for conducting this research. I also think it’s important to shed light on exactly what this research is all about. Journalists and politicians – granted, with some exceptions – tend to form opinions based on zero knowledge. I’ve always said that we reserve embryo selection for serious hereditary diseases, as an alternative to prenatal diagnostics and abortion. I still stand behind this 100%.”

Embryo selection

Originally trained as a biologist, Geraedts has long been interested in human genetics and reproduction. So it made sense when, in the mid-1980s, he started working on IVF in his laboratory. “In those days, if you wanted to know whether a child had any birth defects you found out by way of prenatal diagnostics, which meant you sometimes had to terminate a pregnancy that had come about through such pain and struggle. There was no method to examine embryos back then. And that’s exactly where I saw opportunities. No-one had done this before and I knew it had a lot of potential. But it took a long time before embryo selection became possible not only technically, but also legally and ethically. Fortunately, it’s now well-regulated by an independent national committee that determines which diseases are eligible.”


Less well-regulated, however, is the cultivation of embryos for scientific research, another topic Geraedts is heavily involved in. Looking back, one of the few frustrations he encountered during his career is the ongoing taboo surrounding this topic. “We can use surplus embryos for scientific research, but we’re not allowed to cultivate them. I don’t think people realise how important it is to conduct careful scientific research before you get to the application stage in healthcare. I also think it’s hypocritical that the Dutch government objects to cultivating embryos for scientific research, but sees no problem with IUDs, where the egg is actually fertilised but not implanted. This results in tens of thousands of embryos that are not needed. I recently read that D66 is looking to get a House majority on allowing embryo cultivation for scientific research, so we’ll see how that goes.”


Geraedts can justifiably be considered the founding father of UM’s Department of Clinical Genetics. When he started there in 1982 there was nothing: no lab, no building and a department that consisted of just two people. What began as the Limburg Foundation for Clinical Genetics has since developed into a department with 175 employees at locations in Maastricht and Veldhoven, recently incorporated into the azM. “Those pioneering days were good. I had to build everything from the ground up; something I could never have imagined when I came from Leiden to Maastricht as a young researcher. I guess I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur.”
The important question now is: who will be replacing him? “It’s not set in stone, but probably the head of the Department of Clinical Genetics at Radboud Hospital in Nijmegen. The idea is for the two departments to work together to become more specialised, focusing on cardiovascular diseases in Maastricht and cancer in Nijmegen. The workload is too big for Maastricht to handle alone, so I’m very happy with this partnership.” 


Now that Geraedts has retired as department head, he can turn his attention once more to matters of content. “I chair a European project that is currently underway in seven countries. We look at polar bodies in egg cells; something that’s not being done in the Netherlands at the moment because it’s not allowed. I’m also involved in the Evolution section of the International Museum of Family History, which will open in Eijsden next year, and a suitcase full of memories is waiting for me. I’ve already written about the first 25 years of the Department of Clinical Genetics. Now I have to write about the rest – because those who write, live on.”


Joep Geraedts (1948) was the first professor of Genetics and Cell Biology at Maastricht University. He recently retired as head of the Department of Clinical Genetics at the Maastricht academic hospital and chair of the Genetics and Cell Biology group. He is also the former chair of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE).   

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