19 July

Veni grant for Jochem Bernink: Sweeping up asthma with brush cells

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Jochem Bernink, from the group of Hans Clevers has been awarded a Veni grant from the Dutch research organization NWO. Using this grant, he will investigate which cells in the epithelium of the respiratory tract react to allergens and thereby activate the immune system. Thanks to the Veni grant he can continue this research for three years.

Allergic asthma
Allergic asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects 1 out of 10 children and 1 out of 12 adults. The disease causes severe tightening of the chest and shortness of breath due to an excessive mucus production, swelling and cramps in the muscles around the respiratory tract. Until now, most of the treatments are focused on repressing the hypersensitive immune reactions, thereby focusing on controlling the symptoms and not addressing their cause.

The immune cells are the driving force behind many of the symptoms of asthma, but the cells in of the respiratory tract epithelium, the inner lining of the respiratory tract, are usually in contact with the inhaled allergens. The interaction between the respiratory tract epithelium and the immune cells normally ensures that the respiratory tract is protected from pathogens, but in persons with asthma this interaction is disturbed and severe immune reactions are induced by harmless substances, such as mites and pollen.

Brush cells
Bernink will use the Veni grant to investigate which cells in the respiratory tract recognize the allergens and activate the immune systems. He will focus on a specific type of epithelial cell, the brush cell. The specific function of this cell is so far unknown, but they have chemo-sensory and cytokine-excretion properties, that enable them to scan the inhaled air for pathogens and activate immune cells. These properties make the brush cells good candidates for those cells that initiate the immune reaction.

Using organoids, mini organs that can be cultured in the lab, Bernink will assess which signals are recognized by the brush cells, and how the brush cells can subsequently activate immune cells. Bernink: “In the future, we can hopefully use the acquired knowledge from this research to develop new treatments against the cause instead of the symptoms of asthma.”



Jochem Bernink is a post-doctoral researcher in the group of Hans Clevers.

* The banner image shows two brush cells that are connected to each other in green.