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Coffee with Jeroen den Hertog

Prof. Jeroen den Hertog, Managing Director at Hubrecht Institute has been a member of the NCOH Executive Board until recently. What does he think the future holds for NCOH?

What’s your role at the Netherlands Centre for One Health?

“I’m interested in everything that happens at the NCOH, but my main focus is on the theme Tackling Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). I was a member of the Executive Board at the Hubrecht Institute (KNAW) until recently, but Ferry Hagen [Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute, KNAW, Ed.] has now taken over. My interest is in antibiotics and discovering new antibiotics, which is what part of my group focuses on.”

New antibiotics are badly needed…

“Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is definitely taking centre stage at the moment, but antimicrobial resistance is being dubbed the ‘silent pandemic’. Bacteria have been found that are resistant to all medication, which is a big problem. My colleagues in the hospital are seeing an increase in the number of pig farmers being diagnosed the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA. ESBL-producing bacteria are also becoming a major threat. Soon we’ll have to send patients home, because we simply can’t do anything to help them. That’s horrible. The statistics vary, but if we continue like this, global deaths from antibiotic resistance will reach ten million annually by 2050. Developing new antibiotics is the only solution to this silent pandemic.”

Are you involved with One Health in your free time as well?

“I have no free time,” he says with a laugh. “It’s as simple as that. I’ve been the managing director at the Hubrecht Institute for a year now, which keeps me pretty busy. My main focus at the moment is to make sure everyone complies with the COVID-19 measures, which most people do. Fortunately, we can still work in the lab. We recently compared the amount of waste we produced this year with the amount we produced last year, and it was about the same. That means our labs are operating at normal capacity, which I think is great news.”

How are you handling the pandemic?

“It’s going fine, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. But we did introduce shifts to make sure we can socially distance ourselves at work. Those who don’t have to be at the institute are kindly asked to stay home or to go home immediately after their lab work. It’s going well, but we’re starting to miss the personal interaction that’s often necessary for research. We can finish the things we’ve already started but coming up with new ideas and new research directions calls for interaction. I’m convinced that the biggest breakthroughs happen during casual contact.”

What does the future hold for NCOH?

“I’m biased, because during the last Executive Board (EB) meeting we discussed continuing the NCOH in a form that can survive a future pandemic. I think that’s a great idea. It’s smart to build on what we know now, and everyone at the NCOH can provide their own input.”

Does NCOH benefit other researchers?

“The young people here are definitely benefiting from the annual and interim NCOH meetings. That’s one of our strengths, I’ve heard. Young NCOH is another great development. It’s important to encourage young people to contribute to meetings and give them feedback on their research and presentations. It’s good for their development.”

During an NCOH dinner, you talked about Magic Mushrooms. What’s that?

“That’s an out-of-control hobby,” he says with a grin. “More than a decade ago, I was staring out the window at the Westerdijk Institute next door and thinking about all the fungi they’d collected. I remember wondering whether they produced any biologically active substances. We examined some of these fungal strains and launched a pilot with positive results. We then cultured ten thousand fungal strains in a liquid medium and tested them on zebrafish. About 1,500 worked on zebrafish embryos. In this way, we created a database of fungal strains that can be tested in various ways for biological activity. This has helped us rediscover ten well-known antibiotics, which is a great proof of principle. We can now use this database to conduct further research.”

What’s your message to the NCOH community?

“Keep up the good work! The vaccine is coming and when it does, we can return to normal. Fingers crossed.”