Who are the dedicated scientists that form Oncode Institute? Each quarter we put one of our researchers in the spotlight and focus on the person behind the scientist. In this edition, we introduce Carl Figdor. Find out what drives him and why. 

Carl Figdor

Radboudumc - Nijmegen

Carl Figdor is an Oncode Investigator and Professor of Immunology at Radboudumc, Nijmegen. He became world-famous when he discovered that dendritic cells can be modified and ‘trained’ in the lab to 'teach' patients' immune system to recognize tumor cells.

“I like to beat the odds”

Carl Figdor is an Oncode Investigator and Professor of Immunology at Radboudumc, Nijmegen. He became world-famous when he discovered that dendritic cells can be modified and ‘trained’ in the lab to 'teach' patients' immune system to recognize tumor cells. In 2006, he received the Spinoza Prize for his scientific work and for translating his fundamental research insights on the use of immune cells against cancer into patient care.

Throughout your career you’ve made many significant discoveries regarding our immune system and cancer. What underpins your passion for tumor immunology?

“I dream of having a vaccine against cancer one day. Vaccines have helped humankind so much by banning out infectious diseases. Wouldn’t it be great if a jab in your childhood ensured that you remained cancer-free for the rest of your life?

“While there is still a long way to go, I feel we are slowly getting there. About twenty years ago, the idea of a cancer vaccine seemed pretty far-fetched to most scientists. After all, vaccinations provide our body with antigens of certain bacteria or viruses, which our immune system then recognizes as alien invaders and gets in gear for. Whereas cancer is a genetic, internal process, where cells only minimally differ from normal cells, with only very few antigens to recognize.”

“However, it actually turned out to be possible to alert our immune system to the presence of cancer cells. By vaccinating cancer patients with antigens based on mutated proteins found in cancer cells, for instance.”

In 2011 you won an advanced ERC grant (a grant of over 2 million euros awarded by the European Research Council for groundbreaking high-risk science projects). For most scientists winning a grant like this is already a huge achievement. But you recently received a second one?

“Indeed. After having focused throughout my entire career on biological processes in the body that affect immune responses to cancer cells , I am now also applying my knowledge in the field of chemical biology. With the current ERC grant, I intend to develop synthetic immune systems. By creating a synthetic lymph node that can be injected anywhere into the human body where extra immune activity is needed, for instance. Cancer often diminishes the functioning of our immune system, in which our lymph nodes play a major role. Injecting artificial lymph nodes could amend this. To ensure maximum impact, they could be placed close to the tumor.”

“While I can carry out this research project thanks to the European Research Foundation, I owe it to Oncode Institute that I could start experimenting with synthetic immune systems at all.”

Can you explain this a bit more?

“The initial results of the artificial lymph nodes I am seeking to develop are promising. For instance, mice injected with these don’t show an inflammatory response, which suggests that these nanomaterials are biocompatible.”

“When you start off with an unorthodox, seemingly crazy idea like this, it’s nearly impossible to get funding. It was Oncode that got me going. It’s mission to allow scientists to explore out-of-the-box ideas is truly great.”

You are one of the big names in cancer research, both in the Netherlands and beyond. Yet, you don’t appear in the media as often as some of your contemporaries. Why is that?

“I don’t particularly seek out media attention; I rather let my work speak for itself.”

“This is not to say that I don’t value science communication, though. On the contrary, I find it very important. In 2009 I founded the first Science Education Hub in The Netherlands - here at Radboud University - and over the last decade the initiative expanded into nine hubs at now at nine universities throughout other universities in the country. This organization trains primary school teachers in inquiry-based science education. Besides this, it teaches PhDs and other students to communicate about their work in an accessible way, especially to school pupils aged 8-12.”

“One reason behind this is that we live in a rapidly changing, highly technological and complex society. I believe it’s important that people have informed views on issues, rather than being steered along by random stuff appearing on the internet. Knowing about scientific results and the working of science in general, can empower people to do so. And what better way than to start with the next generation?”

You clearly have a very busy professional life. How do you unwind?

“My wife and I are lucky to own a boat.  We named it Iguana. On holidays we often travel to the UK or to France, preferably at night, because it’s quieter.  Facing the moon and being surrounded by the sound of waves, you realize that we, as human beings, are just tiny creatures, and in that moment everyday life seems far away.”

“Other than that, I like to visit art exhibitions. Once, my wife and I were in London and wanted to visit an exhibition at the National Gallery. But the exhibition room turned out to be closed that day because the guards were on strike! But I – politely - urged a staff member to make an exception, and surprisingly, we were allowed in. I guess this type of behavior is rather typical of me. I can be pretty persistent, if warranted, and don’t mind challenging myself to beat the odds.”

Speaking of art - you love Rembrandt’s work, in particular because of his attention to detail. As you put it in a previous interview: ‘he can depict garments in such a way that one can almost feel the fabric.’ As a scientist, you need an eye for detail as well. Are there other similarities between artists and scientists?

“Definitely. Both artists and scientists need to be creative and imaginative. And both professions demand that you give it your all. Otherwise you can’t stay devoted to work that can be demanding and doesn’t always have a clear progress line. But passion alone doesn’t suffice; you need to be a bit daring too. Only that way can you foster the perseverance to pursue unusual ideas you just cannot let go off – and which may well turn out to be gems one day.”

Credits: interview by Marloes van Amerom; photography by Marloes Verweij, Laloes Fotografie

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