When he explains what he is investigating at a birthday party, the scientist compares himself to a postal worker. “When you order a package, the packaging must protect the contents. It should be a sturdy box that is easy to transport and has the correct address. It is no different with nanoparticles. I also make packages, but so small that they are capable of carrying something to the cells of the body.”
About this series:
For the TU/e end-of-year series, we interview four scientists from different research fields about the highlights of the past year, the biggest challenges in their research, and what they expect in 2023. In this second installment: Roy van der Meel.
The comparison with a pole would seem to typify Van der Meel. During our talk, it is worth noting that the scientist, who received the prestigious VIDI scholarship last summer, he explains his research in very practical terms. The fact that everyone was suddenly talking about vaccines and mRNA did not faze Van der Meel. He likes to share what his job is about, he even sees it as his responsibility. For example, he gave a lecture for the University of the Netherlands and organized pint of sciencean event where scientists talk to members of the general public about their work over a beer in a pub.
Effective drug delivery
Medicines taken in pill form, such as acetaminophen, break down in the stomach, are absorbed into the blood, and then spread throughout the body, even where they are not needed. This is not a problem, as the side effects tend to be minimal. For chemotherapy, for example, which also spreads through the body in this way, it’s a different story. This therapy destroys both healthy cells and cancer cells.
The nanopackages Van der Meel is working on should deliver drugs more effectively, resulting in fewer side effects. He is doing this for RNA drugs in particular, the newer type of drug, which allows proteins to be produced by the patient’s own body.
Van der Meel: “So the idea is that you can use the body as your own personal drug factory. That being said, our body has learned to recognize foreign RNA as an indication of infection and to clean it up accordingly. To harness the body as a drug factory, you have to make sure that the RNA doesn’t break down and gets to the right place in the body.”
To prevent it from disintegrating, the RNA is encapsulated in fat globules that do not disintegrate until they are absorbed by the cells. This releases the drug in the correct place.
The pandemic as an accelerator
These fat globules, or lipid nanoparticles, they are also used in Pfizer/BioNTech corona vaccines, Moderna and CureVac. Nanotechnology was developed by Pieter Cullis’s research group at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Van der Meel was part of this group from 2015 to 2019.
Corona has accelerated the research of RNA drugs and vaccines. Whereas it normally takes years to bring a vaccine to market, the mRNA vaccine was ready in a year. “I knew it could be done, because in 2018 the first medicines composed of lipid nanoparticles had already been approved. So nanotechnology was already here. But that it could happen so quickly, that really amazed me.”
Precision Medicine Group
In 2019 Van der Meel was hired by Professor Willem Mulder. The professor wanted to establish a new group as a collaborative effort between TU/e and Radboud University Nijmegen. Recently, the Precision Medicine Groupof which Van der Meel is a “business leader”, made his first withdrawal to Friesland. “For now, our group is made up of about 15 or 20 people. It was very special to see them all together, we have been working very hard for that for the last few years. This coming year, our first all [student assistant in training, ed.] He is going to get his doctorate. That is also an incredible milestone.”
If you ask Van der Meel, Covid-19 vaccines are an “incredibly good example” of the convergence of nanotechnology and the field of immunology. This is also the power of the research group. “TU/e is a true engineering school, not an academic hospital. Due to our link with the Radboud University of Nijmegen, we still have that connection with the medical side.” Being able to directly impact patients with his research is his greatest motivation. “Working on something where you can really help people, that’s what really motivates me.”
2022: VIDI Scholarship and permanent appointment
2022 was an extraordinary year for Van der Meel. For one, he got a VIDI grant. The goal is to develop nanotechnology that can deliver RNA to specific immune cells and thus further influence the immune response. Not only that, he also heard last month that his trajectory led to a permanent date. “In addition to the VIDI grant, this is definitely a highlight. It means that my colleagues rate my research as innovative and progressive, which is really cool.”
“Working on something where you can really help people, that’s what really motivates me.”
Roy van der Meel
Looking ahead to 2023 and beyond, Van der Meel has high hopes for the next generation of RNA drugs. “Look, now we can inject an RNA drug into the bloodstream using nanotechnology. But, in the future, we may modify those ARN packets so that you can deliver them in a specific way. For example, we can attack lung disease by inhaling RNA particles.”
Vaccines against cancer?
In addition, the scientist also sees that developments related to gene editing are advancing extremely fast. “Gene repair is extremely interesting. Papers were published last year showing how patients’ cholesterol levels can be kept low for a year with a single syringe of an RNA drug. A major drawback of the mRNA vaccine is that it does not lead to lasting change. Using gene editing, you can permanently influence DNA. Perhaps in a few years we can produce personalized cancer vaccines. Fortunately, developments in technology and innovation continue to progress despite everything. That sounds very encouraging to me.”
Van der Meel is also looking forward to 2023 on a more personal level. “I became a father to twins during the pandemic. Next year we are moving with our family from one flat to a newly built house. I really want that. Watching our twins grow up is actually the best and highlight of my life for me.”