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Biology student Martijn Verkuilen wins Unilever Research Prize

Martijn Verkuilen is the winner of the Unilever Research Prize 2022. By transferring DNA from a plant into yeast, he made the first move to produce a new drug for type 2 diabetes. He collected his prize in Wageningen on 24 November.

The Montbretia plant

‘People with diabetes have elevated blood sugar levels,’ Verkuilen says. ‘But the Montbretia plant, a simple garden flower, contains a substance that slowes enzymes in the digestive system down to degrade the starch in our food. This controls or lowers blood sugar levels.’

The plant is still only a part of a solution: ‘The Monbretia makes very little of this particular substance, Montbretin A, or MbA. Even if you fill whole fields with these plants, it would be very challenging to create adequate volumes for a medicine. Especially for a medicine for diabetes, which perhaps millions of people would want to use every day.’

Transferring building blocks

So, together with his supervisor Sandra Irmisch, Verkuilen got to work on the part of the DNA that is responsible for MbA. He was able to transfer the DNA into yeast. As yeast grows fast and is rather easy to manipulate in the lab, it was a great system to use, explains Verkuilen enthusiastically. ‘We transferred the building blocks the plant uses to the yeast, along with the instructions on how to make MbA.’

Supervisor Irmisch: ‘We showed that we can produce MbA in yeast, which is fantastic, but amounts produced are still rather low. We will continue to work in my lab with engineering and optimizing MbA production in yeast.’

Sandra Irmisch and Martijn Verkuilen with their poster

Bright, motivated, self-sufficient and curious

She was very happy with Verkuilen in her lab: ‘Martijn is a very bright, motivated student who is self-sufficient and not afraid of a heavy workload. Especially his curiosity driven character and excellent skillset allowed him to take on this complex research project. His work gave proof-of-concept for the production of the anti-diabetic MbA in a yeast system.’

A poster presentation with award ceremony

The event took place in the Unilever Hive in Wageningen. ‘I was invited to present a poster with my research findings to people from Unilever and the Dutch academic world,’ Verkuilen says. ‘Four guest speakers lectured about imperatives for the transformation of food systems. During the ceremony, we received high praise for our contributions to the sustainable development goals.’ The winners were awarded €2,500 and an ornamental artwork in the shape of a laurel wreath, a symbol of triumph from Ancient Greek times.

About the Unilever Research Prize

The Unilever Research Prize is an annual award given to young scientists, with the aim to support talent in science and acknowledge Unilever’s important relationship with the Dutch academic world. An important selection criterion is that their chosen masters’ thesis topic makes a positive contribution to one or more of the ‘Global Goals’ (also known as the Sustainable Development Goals). 2022 marks the 66th year of the Unilever Research Prizes event.

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