Science in person
The researchers of Oncode Institute are a diverse mix of talented people with different backgrounds and career paths. Junior Oncode Investigators are an essential part of the Oncode Community. They are talented young group leaders who bring new ideas, techniques and vitality to the community. Laura Heitman is a professor of molecular pharmacology at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research (LACDR). Jop Kind is group leader at the Hubrecht Institute and professor by special appointment of Single Cell Epigenomics at the Radboud University Nijmegen. They spoke with us about the importance of the Oncode community and the value it has for young PI’s.
Oncode Investigator and professor of molecular pharmacology at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research (LACDR).
Oncode Investigator, Group Leader at the Hubrecht Institute and Professor by special appointment of Single Cell Epigenomics at the Radboud University Nijmegen
The next generation of excellent scientists
How important is an organization like Oncode for young PI’s?
Laura Heitman: ‘Being part of this community is very important. Our research takes place at the beginning of the drug discovery pipeline, investigating novel concepts, targets and compounds. The majority of Oncode Investigators work further along the pipeline, with preclinical and clinical models. When I joined Oncode in 2019, I found it both exciting and overwhelming’.
Jop Kind: ‘Indeed, there is this general community that is great to be part of. I now know what most investigators within the Oncode community do, because we have had the opportunity to discuss our work during the many Oncode meetings. I now know who to contact if I want patient material or if I want to work on colon cancer. That is extremely valuable.’
Laura Heitman: ‘That financial flexibility which comes with the ‘base funds’ is of course also very helpful. We can now spend our funding on cutting edge science for which it is generally hard to get funding due to lack of preliminary data.
Jop Kind: ‘It is the same for us – we work on technical advances and that is tricky because they are at high risk of failure, but the reward is high if they work. And it is difficult to get funding for this. The Oncode base fund makes this work possible and now it’s also easier to apply for follow up funding or use the base fund to do experiments and then use that data to apply for a grant. I got an ERC grant for research that was initially funded from my base fund. Similarly, I now received a grant for a collaboration with Oncode Investigator Jan Paul Medema (Amsterdam UMC), where we develop a new method for diagnostics on blood. That is now funded by the Royal Academy.
What are the challenges for young PIs and does Oncode help in meeting these challenges?
Laura Heitman: ‘To me, the main challenge is acquiring funding – and Oncode offers support here not only through the base fund but also by assisting in writing or editing your grant applications with support from the Valorization Team. Besides this, a big challenge is supervising a group. There are skills you need to develop, for example on how to interact with the different personalities within your team. When you supervise PhD students – that period of their lives is quite a challenging one. And of course, you have been a PhD student yourself. But it’s an individual trajectory, so each PhD student encounters different challenges and personal issues. I think depending on how the group is expanding, you need to find the best way to supervise your group and give them equal attention even when your agenda is occupied. And these are skills to be learned and Oncode offers support with that’.
Jop Kind: ‘Building a group is certainly a big challenge. It is about finding your signature research line, but like Laura said, the mentoring is difficult and building a group with people that you think are compatible. You need matching characters, but you don’t want one type of character. Dealing with conflict I still think it is the most difficult part of a lab. You need to take firm action, be honest, you need to be outspoken but not judgemental. And that I find very hard. Oncode’s mentoring program helped with that and it’s very useful that registering for those courses is just a click away. I’m not sure this would be something we’d easily do otherwise. As a young PI you need to develop those skills. And you learn what to do and what not to do’.
"To me, the main challenge is acquiring funding – and Oncode offers support here not only through the base fund but also by assisting in writing or editing your grant applications with support from the Valorization Team"
Oncode brings a new model in which basic science and collaboration are combined with valorization. How do you relate to this idea or what has it changed for you?
Laura Heitman: ‘I have a lot of contact with the Oncode valorization team, and this makes me more aware of the potential of my discoveries. That is also a skill I haven’t developed, so I really need experts and it’s great that Oncode provides that as well. I noticed that I often consider myself to be too ‘basic’ or academic and I don’t see that the work that we do can be valorized. Someone needs to point me towards that. And while I have access to the valorization team from the university, they need to serve the whole university, their time is limited. The ratio between the number of people in the valorization team within the university versus the university’s staff is something to consider. In contrast, I feel that I can more easily reach out to the Oncode team, that they have more time for me and have “on topic” expertise.
Jop Kind: ‘It is the same for me. I came to value Oncode’s valorization support very much. At first, I was a bit sceptical. I had no experience with valorization except for this annoying paragraph in grant applications, where you have to fill in something. It is hard to fill in when you do basic science. But now I have frequent contact with Veerle Fleskens, my business developer. She does a lot of the thinking for us; she sees opportunities in grants and applying for grants but also for collaborations. An example of something I really want to develop further is a powerful technology allowing for diagnostics based on liquid biopsies in blood. With low volumes of blood, based on the epigenetics of the DNA and the histones - we can tell if a person potentially has a tumour, what type of tumour, and perhaps the grade of the tumour. This is a pilot project I am currently doing with Jan Paul Medema. If successful, we potentially want to build a spin-off company around the technology to be able to further develop it. I never would have imagined starting a spin-off, but thanks to Oncode’s Valorization Team, I’m very aware of such possibilities.”
Oncode’s goal for the upcoming years is to enable the next game changing research in the fight against cancer. What are the game changers you want to address?
Jop Kind: Developing innovative tools and diagnostics which really benefit cancer diagnostics and research. We are now starting to apply the technologies we developed over the years and start implementing them – for example in the collaborations with Jarno Drost, Jacco van Rheenen and Jan Paul Medema. We will be using the basic science that we developed, with the freedom that we had, use that knowledge we gained and start making a difference in cancer research’.
Laura Heitman: I will continue my research on novel concepts for drug discovery, basically trying to find novel chemical modalities to intervene with protein function. One such concept involves protein degradation. A proven concept for many types of enzymes, but not yet for membrane bound enzymes, which is my field of interest. This is a typical high risk research line, requiring both new technical skills and the expertise to synthesize new compounds. Using my base fund, we have made considerable strides forward, all essential ‘pieces’ are in place, now let’s see whether we can degrade membrane proteins as well’.