Seeding sprinkles of hope

PhD student Job Boekhoven won a NWO Rubicon grant and will soon be heading to Chicago to develop injectable microspheres to repair brain damage resulting from strokes.

Job Boekhoven wants to regenerate brain tissue. (Photo: Tomas van Dijk)
Job Boekhoven wants to regenerate brain tissue. (Photo: Tomas van Dijk)

Job Boekhoven, who conducted his PhD research at Professor Jan van Esch’s lab (Applied Sciences), specialised in making self-assembling molecules, which often have a hydrophilic (water-loving) and a hydrophobic (oil-loving) side. In watery surroundings, such soap-like molecules tend to cling together and form vesicles, fibrils, fibers or sheets – all depending on the circumstances (concentrations for one).
For his first postdoc research, Boekhoven was searching for something that would be partly familiar but sufficiently new at the same time. He found what he was looking for at the laboratories of Professor Samuel Stupp at Northwestern University in Chicago (US).

Prof Stupp’s labs are known for their spectacular results in neural regeneration. Normally neural cells or nerves do not recover after being damaged. This is why a damaged spine will usually result in permanent paralysis. Researchers in Stupp’s lab (staffing some 40 – 50 PhD students) have developed a molecule that builds scaffolds in rats’ damaged spines. These spots offer support to stem cells, which will multiply and eventually partly reconnect the damaged neural connection. This biological aspect of the application of self-assembling molecules is new to Boekhoven, but the molecules themselves are familiar territory.

“What attracts me to Professor Stupp’s lab is that they not only develop the molecules, but they do the actual biology as well,” he says. “They cover the whole spectrum from the fundamental to the applied.”

In the two years he will spend at Stupp’s lab, Boekhoven aims to develop small spheres (sized 5 to 10 micrometres) that will be injected in a brain after a stroke has occurred, hopefully resulting in localised regeneration of brain tissue. Up to now, the only option is to insert pieces of plastic covered with stem cells into the brain. Simply injecting a small dose of microspheres would seem much less intrusive.
There are however numerous challenges still to face: how to ‘click’ stem cells on the microspheres, how to nudge them into multiplying and then turn them into nerve cells – all open questions for an aspiring Dutch postdoc starting on 1 May.

Job Boekhoven, ‘Multicomponent and dissipative self-assembly approaches – towards functional materials’, PhD supervisors Prof. Jan van Esch and Dr Rienk Eelkema, 24 April 2012