I studied biomedical sciences at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, the Netherlands. During my research internship, I developed an interest in stem cell therapy for cardiovascular disease. When I started my PhD at the Department of Cardiology under the supervision of Prof. Pieter Doevendans in Utrecht, cardiovascular progenitors had just been discovered. These were very exciting times for the field of cardiac regeneration. As a PhD student, I investigated the potential of human cardiac progenitor cells derived from cardiac tissue biopsies in cell-based therapy after myocardial infarction (MI) (Smits et al., Nat Protoc. 2009). I was able to show that these human progenitor cells can form new cardiac tissue and partially prevent the deterioration of cardiac function in a mouse model for MI (Smits et al. Cardiovasc Res 2009). Although this approach was relatively inefficient, the identification of cells present within the heart that can participate in cardiac repair, was intriguing. Therefore, my next research questions focussed on understanding the behaviour of progenitor cells locally after damage, and more importantly, on trying to enhance their contribution to repair.
As such, the epicardium: a single cell layer located on the outside of the heart, caught my interest as it was shown to be a crucial contributor of cells and paracrine signals to the formation of the embryonic myocardium (Smits J. Dev Biol. 2014). In adults, the epicardium is a quiescent single-cell layer, but it can partially be reactivated upon injury. I managed to secure a personal Rubicon fellowship from The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) specifically designed to venture abroad. I joined the lab of Prof. Paul Riley at University College London and Oxford University for 2,5 years to explore the epicardium as a source of endogenous cells.
Currently, I work at the Department of Molecular Cell Biology at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), with Prof. Marie-José Goumans. I have recently initiated my own research group funded by several personal grants including a VENI grant from NWO, and a LUMC Research Fellowship. My group focuses on using human-cultured foetal epicardial cells as a paradigm to optimise the adult epicardial response after injury. This could include a paracrine effect, proliferation of cardiac cells or the delivery of new cells derived from the epicardium (Fig 1). I expect that understanding the processes that partake in foetal epicardial activation can be translated to the adult epicardium, thereby providing a new therapeutic avenue for treating patients with cardiovascular disease.
By joining the Scientists of Tomorrow, I hope to contribute to their mission by conveying basic science concepts in (stem) cell biology and regenerative medicine to the young cardiovascular research community. Additionally, since women in science can be faced with challenges, I hope that through the SoT platform, I can share my experiences with other women wanting to pursue a career in science. I look forward to supporting the ESC and Council on Basic Cardiovascular Science in their activities, which provide excellent opportunities for young scientists to interact, as well as present their work and develop their scientific careers.