Published 28 June 2011 by

Researcher portrait: Joke van Bemmel

Joke van Bemmel (imagine how to say it with a Dutch accent – ‘y’ for ‘j’), is a researcher from The Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. The enthusiastic 29-year-old van Bemmel is nearing the end of her PhD, and is currently applying to find the ideal postdoc position. The dream is to: "just be doing nice, cool, interesting science."

She is excited to tell me about the study of chromatin that she has worked on with others in her lab, which was published in Cell last year. Chromatin is is a combination of proteins and DNA in the nucleus, and is ‘important for the regulation of transcription’, the researchers wrote. Van Bemmel tells me it’s too soon to say what kinds of implications the basic research into the types of chromatin will have.

As we sat by the pretty harbour in Lindau, we talked about some of the big issues raised in the meeting so far, and where her career is headed. Read the transcript of our conversation below: 

Q: What’s your view on cognitive-enhancing drugs to enhance intelligence – if they had no side-effects?

That’s an ethical question! Intuitively, I’d be against it. That’s just a gut feeling. I think everyone has their own talents, on different levels – it could be musicality, it could be working with wood. There are different kinds of intelligence; if you talk about drugs in this way, its only one kind of intelligence.

Q: Is bacterial antibiotic resistance as big a threat as the media makes out?

Yes, because it’s clearer and clearer that we do have a problem. Resistance keeps changing and we can’t keep up with it. As we have heard in the meeting – the ribosomal talk [by Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath] was a really good example. [Yonath said that antibiotic resistance was "almost the most frightening and biggest problem of medicine."]

Q What’s the hottest area of research in medicine/physiology at the moment?

What I think is that at the moment research is going towards the combination of lab work and big data sets. It’s no longer this single gene, single interaction or single locus… everything is going genome-wide. And in proteomics looking at multiple proteins at the same time. The same in the telemorase talk where she [Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn]  talked about the robot to look at the telomeres of many people at the same time. I think that is where the future goes, this combination of modelling data, analysing big data sets and the lab work.

Q: Has human health so far improved from the sequencing of the genome?

I’m not sure if I can say how much it benefited, it has benefited less than expected. The idea was that once we know the genome we will be able to do anything, everything is in the genome. But then, it didn’t appear to have all the answers. Even if you know the genome, you still don’t know all the coding regions, even if you know them – there is so much going on in regulation. These things are so much more important than it was thought they would be at the time of the Human Genome Project.

It does contribute a lot to the research going on in that field, [however,] the availability of the sequences of a lot of different genomes really does contribute to the research going on that field. So it is a contribution but it’s not the answer to everything. Of course, talking about personalised medicine, it does contribute to that part: If you know which mutation a person has, what type of cancer you can predict what type of treatment will work, and which not.

Q: Can you tell me about your research?
This comes back to the point where I said knowing the genome doesn’t make you know everything. So we look at chromatin, which is the proteins binding to the DNA in a combination, and these proteins influence the expression level of genes and the packaging of the genome. What we were wondering was can we generate a big picture of what chromatin does? It has been observed that there was inactive and active chromatin, and the DNA that is transcribed is of these that are on, is differently packed that the DNA that is off… We took a bunch of proteins and we decided to check where they bind to the genome, and then we managed that with 53 proteins. We looked at different combinations, and we actually found five different types of combinations that were occuring. So that was pretty cool.
We found there were actually two different active types, and and it also related to different gene functions: So one was related to a housekeeping genes, that you need in every cell type all the time, and other that were more tissue specific and more specifically regulated genes. And the fifth one was a completely inactive type, more inactive than the two inactive ones that were already known. That was a nice finding.

Q: What are the implications of your research?

That is a long shot still, because this was done in the Drosophila genome, the fruit fly, because the genome is much smaller and has less different homologues. If you want to do the same in humans you’ll need more proteins of all the different types, so directly, I can’t think of anything. But knowing how things are regulated, that opens the way for knowing that things go wrong. In cancer, there is not only mutations going on – but there is a lot of things that go wrong based on gene regulation or epigenetics.
A note: epigenetics is a bit of a tricky word, we were only looking at one lot of cells. We looked at one cell type but not heritability. It can be confusing but it’s closely related.
Q: What is your aspiration for the future?

I am sure it would just be doing nice, cool, interesting science. I will definitley try and stay in science – I enjoy it a lot. I like what one Nobel Laureate said last night: "Just try is and see where it goes – you can always get a real job like everyone else". He might be right. We are all doing what we really like, we should do this and enjoy it while it lasts – I hope it lasts really long.
Q: What is the biggest challenge for you in your career?
In science you can always learn and get advice from your colleagues, we are all eager to learn. You can spend time on it, it is quite flexible. So I think the biggest challenge is just getting the right career path – and in the meantime have a personal life!
Q: How are you enjoying the meeting?
What I like is the every Laureate has a different view on giving a talk: Some people give really inspirational ones, you can sit back and its funny; or some people focus on the fact they also have a private life and a family it is reassuring to hear that even Nobel Laureates have a life; and some tell you about a field you know nothing about yet. It’s enjoyable. 


Note: edited 29.06.2011