Leiden University Fund.

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LUF grants for far-ranging medical and archaeological research

Atherosclerosis and the Darien Gap in Panama will be researched in greater detail this year with a grant from Leiden University Fund. Sander Kooijman (LUMC) and Sander van Kasteren (Faculty of Science) have been awarded a 150,000-euro LUF Impulse Grant to research the cause of atherosclerosis. And archaeologist Natalia Donner has been awarded 75,000 euros to research human presence in the impenetrable land bridge between Central and South America. She has been awarded the LUF Praesidium Libertatis Grant.

Medical biologist Sander Kooijman and chemist Sander van Kasteren want to show that the cause of atherosclerosis is different than was thought, and that it should therefore be treated differently.

It has always been assumed that atherosclerosis is caused by smaller and larger fat particles that transport substances such as cholesterol in the blood. These were thought to escape via damaged parts of the artery wall, slipping through the gaps between the cells. Kooijman believes this assumption to be wrong because it would mean that people with genetic conditions that cause lots of large fat particles in the blood would suffer more often from cardiovascular disease, which isn’t the case.

Sander van Kasteren and Sander Kooijman on the bridge in Doelensteeg

First test successful

Kooijman suspects that the atherosclerosis that starts in almost everyone from the age of 20 is caused by the fat particles – but only the small ones – passing through rather than between the cells. The only problem is he couldn’t prove this because the process couldn’t be visualised. ‘Until a chance meeting with Sander van Kasteren. It turned out that he was able to make molecules that visualise biological processes without affecting them. So I asked him if he could do something similar with fats.’

The result is fat particles with a chemical handle that molecular lights can attach to. This makes it possible to see under a microscope whether they pass between or through the cells. A first test was successful and prompted them to apply for the LUF Impulse Grant.

'This means we can develop new drugs to prevent atherosclerosis’

More applications possible

If Kooijman’s theory proves right, his research will be groundbreaking for cardiovascular disease, which 1.5 million people in the Netherlands suffer from and over 100 people die of every day. ‘We’ll be able to develop new drugs to prevent atherosclerosis. With Sander van Kasteren’s “Klik” system, the chemical handle, we’ve also developed a way to test if and how these drugs work.’ And that’s not all: ‘The system can be applied to other research where fats play a role that we don’t yet understand properly. With RNA vaccines, for instance, and obesity. But first cardiovascular disease.’

If they are successful, says Kooijman, further research stands a chance with the large funds. ‘The stage we’re at now is promising and extensive, but also premature. It’s fantastic that the LUF has awarded us the Impulse Grant.’

Natalia Donner

Inhabitants of the Darien Gap

For Argentinian-Mexican Natalia Donner, a lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities and a guest researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology, the LUF’s Praesidium Libertatis Grant is also a stepping stone to more long-term research. In the Darien Gap in Panama to be precise. She is going to conduct several months of field research there into the chronology of human activity in the area. This will be with a number of Leiden students and with the aid of colleagues from the University of Panama and the University of California. Donner wants to chart the interaction between the Darien Gap and the humans who lived there over the millennia.

This research, titled Mapping Time, will have a manifold impact. To begin with it’s a scientific first: no one has ever carried out systematic archaeological research in this densely vegetated land bridge between Central and South America, which played a key role in the population of the continent. It is thought that the region has been populated for 10,000 years, possibly longer. Donner hopes to find evidence of this. And more than that alone. She hopes that the archaeological evidence will help shed light on the obscure history of people in the Darien Gap.

'They’re better able to protect the rainforest from deforestation than the police are’

Fight against deforestation

Donner will also help the indigenous peoples of the area with their claim to land that is threatened by deforestation. Like in the Amazon, large swathes of rainforest in the Darien Gap fall victim to logging, illegal agriculture and cattle ranching. A previous claim by a group of inhabitants was rejected because they couldn’t provide archaeological evidence that people had lived there before it was made a national park. ‘We don’t have to prove that they were there before Columbus, only that they lived there before 1980. So that’s what we’re going to do. And we’re going to do it in such a way that makes it easy for other ethnic groups to do this too. They’re better able to protect the rainforest from deforestation than the police are, and at the same time protect their way of life in the forest.’

Until now, says Donner, local inhabitants were only open to applied scientific research. They saw archaeology as a way to promote tourism. ‘But that’s changed completely, which offers perspectives for more research. Because so much there is still uncharted.’

Header photo: Natalia Donner at a dig in Nicaragua where she worked together with local experts and students.

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