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Medical Delta professor Ariane Briegel: 'I love working with people from different backgrounds'

Multidrug-resistant pathogens and worldwide pandemics are increasing, making infectious diseases more prevalent. To develop new treatments, deeper knowledge of the interaction between bacteria and human cells is required. Ariane Briegel recently became a Medical Delta professor and studies such pathogens.

Briegel, a professor at Leiden University and more recently a Medical Delta professor with a dual appointment at Delft University of Technology as well, uses high-resolution 3-D imaging to study multidrug-resistant pathogens. 

‘I’m really curious about what being part of Medical Delta will bring me,’ says Briegel. ‘It is a new community for me. I hope to meet new people, people that will inspire me with new ideas and new questions. I am also excited about intensifying our collaboration with Delft. My research is very fundamental, but we are slowly moving to more practical applications. Being part of Medical Delta will help me with that.’

Can you briefly explain your expertise?

‘I’m a microbiologist and I use imaging techniques to study bacteria. The main technique we use is electron cryotomography. With this technique, we can create 3D images of bacteria in their native state at a very high resolution. This enables us to see what kinds of structure bacteria use to interact with their environment. How do they swim around? How do they know where to go in your body? To investigate this behaviour at the nanoscale, we rely on collecting high-resolution images at NeCEN, the Dutch cryo-electron microscopy centre at Leiden University.

‘This discipline is absolutely fascinating. There is this unseen world of microbes, and our tools enable us to get a glimpse of it. What happens, what bacteria look like and how they interact. In the past few years, for instance, we have discovered the composition of the bacterial “nose” that enables the cells to smell sugars and other environmental cues that they use to navigate. This is medically relevant: many pathogens use this behaviour during the first step of host infection. Finding ways to inactivate this “nose”could help combat especially antibiotic-resistant species.’

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How will Medical Delta benefit your work?

‘Working with Delft gives me access to a lot of specialists. I’m already working with some of them: Stan Brouns, for example. He is an expert in bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria. Phage therapy has a lot of potential and may be an alternative to antibiotics in some instances. I’m also working with Arjen Jacobi, a cryo-electron microscopy expert who is developing new tools for this technique. At the moment, our lab equipment is not designed for strictly anaerobic pathogens. He is helping to develop workarounds for that.’

How will you benefit Medical Delta?

‘I aim to integrate high-resolution microscopy into the Medical Delta community. This technique was highly relevant in understanding Covid and determining the detailed structure of the Covid spikes, which were key to developing effective vaccines. It will be essential to understanding other pathogens as well, and therefore is an important tool for preparing for future pandemics. I’m the only Medical Delta professor with this expertise.’

What is it like working with someone from a completely different discipline?

‘I love working with people from different backgrounds. In the beginning, it is like speaking a different language. We mean different things with the same words. It takes a while to align our language and you need to talk a lot to figure that out.

‘In my experience the main element for successful collaboration is that you get along with the person you are working with. If the personal aspects fit and you are both enthusiastic, then it works.’

What do you hope to achieve for patients and healthcare professionals?

‘In the past we did not conduct any research that could be directly applied in the clinic. We were mainly working on fundamental research questions to understand how bacteria behave and interact with their environment, but recently that changed slightly. We have been awarded a KWF grant and are working with the Prinses Maxima Center to develop biosensors that are based on the bacterial nose. We are researching how this behaviour can be used to “sniff out” cancer in patient urine, and the results so far are promising.

‘Another thought is how we can use our knowledge to better understand the process of virus infection, such as Covid. I was triggered by a student asking how our work can help us understand Covid. There are many open questions, such as when a virus enters your body from the environment. Do bacteria play a role in the transmission process? We are looking into that. There could be a link with our studies.’

You are probably meeting more researchers from other disciplines and institutes. Whose work has really surprised you?

‘There are so many interesting researchers, especially one from other universities who are not from my own field. Maybe not straight away on reading their CV, but once they start talking about what they do it really inspires me. Stan Brouns, Arjen Jacobi and Cees Dekker at Delft, for example. I am excited to be their new colleague.’

This article originates from the website van Medical Delta. It is part of a series in which we highlight the eight new Medical Delta professors. Click here for the other portraits published so far.

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