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Coffee with Meta Roestenberg

Meta Roestenberg is an infectious disease specialist and professor of human modelling for the development of vaccines at LUMC. She joined the NCOH executive board in the fall of 2021. An interview on the domain of expertise and how this interlaces with the NCOH and her personal motivation.

What type of research do you do?

I study infectious diseases that are related to poverty. In addition, my group studies the development of new vaccines and cures. In a very broad sense: we don’t just test new medicines; we also study the interaction between humans and pathogens to gain more understanding of how the immune system responds. It is translational research that focuses on gathering information that we can use to develop new products.

How do parasites as pathogens differ from viruses or bacteria?

Parasites adapt to their host and are able to transform inside the host into another appearance, much like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. They use so-called vectors, such as mosquitos or snails, to reach their host. Bacteria and viruses multiply profusely and spread through the body randomly. Parasites, however, migrate through the body. They search for specific organs and ignore anatomical boundaries. They frequently fly below the immune system’s radar. I am extremely fascinated by them.

Fascinating, perhaps, but far from harmless, right?

There are extremely dangerous parasites, such as malaria. But there are also parasites that are less harmful: certain worms, for example. These are parasitic in the sense that they use the body to feed off, but damaging their host is not in their interest and killing the host even less so. They are well adapted to their host and manipulate the immune system to protect themselves. They are the product of thousands of years of evolution, and that is what makes them so very intriguing.

Why is there a link between parasitic infections and poverty?

Parasitic infections occur in countries where poverty prevails and where hygiene often leaves much to be desired. Or where specific vectors can be found, such as malaria mosquitos. Their impact on individuals and on society as a whole is enormous, and they contribute to perpetuating poverty and inequality. Previously, I always had to explain the economic impact of such diseases. Since the corona pandemic, everyone understands.

What challenges are there in the development of vaccines against such parasites?

The greatest challenge lies in the fact that parasites are so well able to adapt to their host. They are also very complex; they have thousands of proteins. In the case of viruses, covid, for example, a single protein vaccine often suffices. With parasites, however, the first protein you encounter on the surface is not necessarily the right protein for a vaccine. Even more to the point, you could even encounter proteins that the parasite uses to manipulate the host immune system and targeting those are thus beneficial to the parasite.

What benefits does the NCOH have?

Its added value lies in the collaboration. We’re talking about big, global challenges. You want to find the best solutions for this together; interdisciplinary, with different types of researchers together. In this way, major problems, such as newly emerging infections and antibiotic resistance, can be tackled broadly with attention to the living environment and health of both humans and animals.

The NCOH is a platform with a broad base of support in the Netherlands, of which almost all research universities are members. That is what makes the NCOH unique and enables us to join forces to make a difference.

What sparks your dedication to infectious diseases and One-Health research?

During my studies in medicine, I travelled to the Philippines, India and Namibia. After graduating, I returned to India. I was in awe of the consequences infectious diseases have on society. I have always wanted to do work that allows me to do good and make a difference. Working in countries such as this provided me with a clear view of how we can contribute to solutions. An integrated approach is essential. The problems are so complex that there is no point in focussing on a single aspect, such as hospital care. Ensuring people have sufficient nutrition is essential, and education, hygiene and the position of women must be addressed. Otherwise, you’re just fighting a losing battle.

Do you feel that your involvement in the NCOH helps you contribute?

Indeed, particularly through collaboration and interaction. We exchange knowledge that we all use, which helps us move forward. It is my firm conviction that together, we can achieve more. We need each other to tackle issues of this magnitude.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I spend a lot of time with my family. I have two sons aged nine and ten who are very socially involved. They want to know everything I do and worry about Ukrainian refugees. I love seeing their commitment! Moreover, playing volleyball is a good outlet. In the field, I am super fanatical and I would like to win, but I can also handle my loss very well. I don’t deliver any technical feats, but for me it’s mainly about the joint effort that is required for a victory. The fact that nothing depends on it is also nice!

Are you fanatical about hygiene at home, considering your area of expertise?

Oh no, not at all. Research has also shown that a little dirt is not bad at all. Children who grow up on farms are less likely to suffer from asthma. No, my children don’t have to wash their hands all the time.