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New insights into mycobacterial infections with NWO grant

Why are mycobacteria such successful pathogens? And are there defence mechanisms in the body that help reduce an infection? To find out, Annemarie Meijer has been awarded the NWO Open Competition ENW-XL grant. She will not explore this quest alone. Five other leading Dutch research groups are participating in the project.

The research project focuses on mycobacteria: Pathogens that are known to cause tuberculosis. They also cause so-called non-tuberculosis lung infections. ‘They are masters at evading the immune system,’ says Meijer. ‘Also, mycobacteria are notorious for their resistance to antibiotics. These infections are therefore still among the deadliest in the world.’

The ENW-XL project approaches the problem of mycobacterial infections from three sides: the bacteria, the host and the development of new therapies.

Infect and protect

The researchers will address three questions during the project. They will look at the mycobacteria themselves, and how they affect infected cells in the body - the so-called macrophages. They also want to know how macrophages react after infection. Meijer will work on this query. ‘We know that the macrophages protect themselves slightly against the bacteria in a number of clever ways. We want to know which ways they use to kill different types of mycobacteria.’

The project looks for new therapies to disrupt the infection cycle of mycobacteria (red).

New insights for new therapies

These two lines of research should help answer the third question: How can we turn these findings into new clinical therapies? For example, by strengthening macrophage defence mechanisms or by using specific systems of the mycobacteria as targets. ‘A large part of the interplay between mycobacteria and their host is still unknown, but we hope to gain new insights this way,’ says Meijer.

Fantastic through collaboration

‘It is fantastic to win such a grant. To lead a group of leading scientists in the mycobacterium field is very stimulating. And it allows for some renewal in doing research,’ laughs the researcher from Leiden Institute of Biology (IBL). She will be working with the groups of Ariane Briegel (also IBL), Sergey Nejentsev (Amsterdam UMC), Edith Houben (VU Amsterdam), Jakko van Ingen (Radboud UMC) and Tom Ottenhof (LUMC). ‘The coming five years, we are going to investigate this with great enthusiasm.

About the NWO Open competition ENW-XL grant

Within the ENW Open Competition (Exact and Natural Sciences), researchers can submit research proposals for curiosity-driven, fundamental research, individually or in collaboration. This year almost 60 million euro was awarded to 21 different projects, including four Leiden consortia.

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