Cell-derived vesicles are not mere cellular waste products, but can play an active role in the body’s immune system. Esther Nolte-’t Hoen was convinced of that already during her PhD. At that time, about ten years ago, this was a controversial topic within the scientific community. But Esther persevered and remained loyal to ‘her’ extracellular vesicles. Only a few years later this research area became more-widely recognized, and nowadays receives a lot of attention from researchers in various disciplines. In the meantime, Esther has become Assistant Professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology of the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences at Utrecht University and is an expert in the field of extracellular vesicles and the immune system. Esther doesn’t often sit back and relax since she has many more innovative ideas and ambitious plans for research.
“Dare to think beyond existing paradigms”
“My motto comes from the American essayist and renown thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail’. A parallel can be drawn between his motto and doing scientific research: the search of the unknown. Esther has an ambition to think outside the existing paradigms and keep an open mind.Especially in cases where results are different from what was expected, great discoveries can be made. I seek answers in the direction of yet untraveled paths. By thinking beyond the established theories, by seeking cross connections, and by combining different research disciplines, I am convinced we can increase our conceptual knowledge of biological systems.”
Excitement and creativity
After high school I decided to study Medical Biology as I was interested in the processes of the human body and how hitches in these processes can lead to disease. During my internships at several laboratories I found out that I particularly liked fundamental research. What appealed to me in research? The excitement when making scientific discoveries and the creativity you can put into research. I first came across immunological research during my internships. What fascinated me in this field was the enormous complexity of the immune system. The immune system is active in almost all parts of our organ systems and is therefore involved in many disease processes.
“What determines the interactions between immune cells? How do these communication processes between cells influence cellular behaviour? How does this affect the activity of the immune system? These are the questions that I find really intriguing. It seems that extracellular vesicles serve as messengers for communication between cells. This means of communication can be very important for our immune system. Tightly-regulated communication processes between cells can counteract attacks by incoming microbes, e.g. viruses and bacteria.”
“During my PhD, between 2000 and 2003, I discovered that immune cells pass on extracellular vesicles to one another. The vesicles are small packages containing very specific information that can affect target cell behaviour. This is a really fascinating concept that I wanted to explore further as a post doctoral researcher. Initially, it was extremely difficult to get our data on these vesicles published in the scientific literature. The vesicles were generally seen as useless cellular waste products. Since 2008, a couple of important discoveries caused a turnaround, and this research field became widely accepted and even popular within the biomedical sciences. The number of publications is now exponentially increasing, an international society has been established, and a new journal has become available specifically on this topic.”
“The research can be of importance to animals as well as humans”
“As we acquired a lot of expertise in this area within our research group over the years , I collected plenty of material and ideas to write an ERC grant proposal. In 2013, I received the grant: no less than 1.5 million euro to set up an innovative research line. Currently, my main task involves developing and expanding this research line. Now that I have received the grant, I am able to answer many of the questions that have arisen over the years about the role of extracellular vesicles in the immune system.”
“Although I work at the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, this does not mean that I only work with animals. For the fundamental molecular research we make use of different cell systems in cell culture flasks in which we simulate the communication processes between immune cells. The information obtained through these types of experiments of course needs to be verified in living organisms at a later stage. The research can be of importance to animals as well as humans.”
“In addition to this fundamental research, we also do more applied research within the field of Infection & Immunity. In collaboration with Nutricia Research we have a project on breast milk. . We are trying to find out how extracellular vesicles in breast milk contribute to development of the infant’s immune system. This project is also of importance in the veterinary field. Think about questions as whether the immune system of calves would be fitter if they would drink mother’s milk instead of the commonly-used formula. We are also involved in research to discover cancer-related biomarkers in blood. I enjoy the combination of doing both fundamental and more applied research. Both types of research are necessary to unveil novel insights that can improve both human and animal health.”
“My average day is not only filled with pure science. My work encompasses a lot of managerial work and meetings, training of PhD students, management of technicians, and supervision of interns and students writing their thesis. My advice for PhDs and students that want to pursue a career as scientists? Brainstorm! Make use of other researchers as a sounding board. And always remain very critical of your own data. Well-supported theories allow for faster research and make your research more credible.”