2 February 2021

Hans Clevers receives honorary doctorate from KU Leuven

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Hans Clevers, group leader at the Hubrecht Institute, receives an honorary doctorate from the KU Leuven. The festive award ceremony would have taken place today but has been postponed to a later date due to the corona restrictions. Clevers receives the honorary doctorate for the development of mini organs in the lab. These organoids are used in labs all over the world for many purposes, among which gaining a better understanding of disease and predicting how a patient will respond to a treatment.

Growing mini organs

The first organoid was developed during a collaboration between Hans Clevers and the Japanese postdoc Toshiro Sato in 2008. They aimed to make a stem cell from the intestine of a mouse divide in a Petri dish. “Our intention was to use one stem cell to make many stem cells, but it was immediately clear that something else was happening.” The cells had formed a structure that looked like a mini-intestine and in many respects, it also seemed to work like a real intestine. The first organoid was born.

Organoid technology has developed considerably over the past decade: from mouse to human tissue, from the intestine to a whole series of other organs. There are now miniature versions of the liver, the lungs, the stomach, the kidneys and the pancreas, among others. These are no longer only the work of Clevers and his colleagues in Utrecht. Researchers across the whole world are now using their recipes to create organoids.

Picture of a liver organoid
Organoid of the human liver. © Delilah Hendriks & Benedetta Artegiani - Hubrecht Institute
Personalizing cancer therapies

The enthusiasm is understandable. These mini-organs are able to replace many forms of animal testing research and they offer unprecedented possibilities. You can use an organoid to test whether a particular medication will be effective on an individual patient, for example in the case of cancer. If you were able to test a cancer therapy outside of the patient first, you can offer the patient a working therapy immediately. Clevers explains: “You can treat the disease in an earlier stage than if you have to wait and see until the second or third medication works. And you avoid inflicting the damage that non-effective therapies can have.”

He is absolutely convinced of the potential of organoids for cancer treatment. “We can grow ninety percent of the cancers that occur in adults. Last year, about five articles were published showing that for intestinal cancer, organoids can correctly predict sensitivity to a medication in 80 to 90 percent of cases. This must all still be confirmed in large validation trials, of course. In the meantime, companies are working on equipment to make the tests faster and cheaper.”

Honorary doctorate

As part of its Patron Saint’s Day celebrations, KU Leuven traditionally confers a number of honorary doctorates in recognition of extraordinary scientific, social, or cultural achievements. With receiving the honorary doctorate, Clevers can call himself a doctor honoris causa for the first time. This is also a great honour for KU Leuven, says Professor Séverine Vermeire, who heads research into inflammatory bowel diseases in Leuven and is one of the promoters of the honorary doctorate. “People who are not afraid to explore new avenues and who are open to surprises, those are the people who innovate and inspire. Hans Clevers will no doubt continue to do this over the coming years.”

Besides Hans Clevers, honorary doctorates are awarded to Zhenan Bao, Bruno Latour, Kate Raworth and Jimmy Volmink for their extraordinary achievements. They are introduced here.

The full interview of the KU Leuven with Hans Clevers can be found here.

Picture Hans Clevers


Hans Clevers is group leader at the Hubrecht Institute and the Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology, professor of Molecular Genetics at Utrecht University, and Oncode Investigator.