From the Lab to… consultancy – Susan Barendrecht, PhD
On November 11th, Susan Barendrecht, Life Sciences & Health Consultant at Catalyze, successfully defended her PhD thesis in Halle, Germany. Her research was conducted in the field of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), with a special focus on improving the translational value of preclinical studies for AD. In this edition of ‘From the Lab to…’, Susan shares more about her PhD journey, and what inspired her to join the Catalyze consultancy team.
Creating Alzheimer’s disease models that translate to human AD
During her PhD studies at the Fraunhofer Institute, Susan took on a major issue in AD: the lack of disease models with good translational value. Many new therapies that seem very promising in preclinical studies, don’t show efficacy in clinical studies. One of (several) underlying reasons is, that the available models do not accurately reflect all the aspects of human AD pathology.
Most models focus on a protein called amyloid beta, which aggregates in so-called ‘plaques’ in the brain of AD patients. Since the 90’s, when Hardy and Selkoe posed the amyloid cascade hypothesis (which states that amyloid beta is the driving force behind AD pathology), a lot of time, effort, and resources have been spent on targeting this protein for drug development. So far, with very limited success.
Another protein that plays a major role in AD, tau, has been less well-studied. Since many models use tau mutations related to frontotemporal dementia instead of AD, the generated research data also lack translational value. Thus, there is an urgent need to create better models.
Susan explains how she addressed this issue:
“In my PhD project I characterized a new model for AD, based on a highly representative version of the human tau protein. We uncovered several interesting differences between the human tau protein and the mouse tau protein, which are described in a publication that has recently been submitted to Molecular Neurodegeneration. This tool will benefit the field of AD research, and hopefully generate promising new targets for drug development.”
Investigating the role of immune cells in AD pathology
Originally, it was believed that the central nervous system has its own immune system, without any input from the periphery. Although that is the case in the healthy brain, peripheral immune cells are actually able to cross the blood-brain-barrier during disease, such as multiple sclerosis and AD. This knowledge caused a paradigm shift in many fields of neuro-research, because there can be a major difference in the contribution of different types of immune cells (brain-resident microglia and peripheral immune cells) to certain processes and pathologies in the central nervous system.
Susan describes, “During my PhD, I made a first step in investigating the different roles that immune cells have in AD pathology. We used genetically modified mice that express a green fluorescent protein in all immune cells and a red fluorescent protein only in peripheral immune cells. By analyzing brains from these mice, crossed with disease models, my group has generated valuable knowledge about the contribution of these different cell types to AD, which will strongly benefit the development of immunotherapies for AD.”
Looking away from academia
Reflecting on her PhD career at the Fraunhofer Institute, Susan highlights the importance of this challenging experience for her personal development:
“I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD, it was an important learning experience which helped me to develop my problem-solving and analytical skills. At times, living in another country and being fully responsible for managing my own project was highly challenging, but it taught me to be perseverant and self-reliant. However, it also made me realize that my ambition to cure AD and have a real impact on AD patients was unrealistic.”
Although making important strides in Alzheimer’s research during her PhD, Susan shares how she became motivated to explore new possibilities, where she could apply her skills and expertise on a broader scale.
Susan says, “Although there is an urgent need to answer critical basic research questions about AD before this devastating disease can be cured completely, I realized this field was not the best fit for me. I was looking for a role closer to the market, where I could have an impact on patient’s lives and on society as a whole.”
Making impact at Catalyze
Now working at Catalyze, Susan helps to bring life science & health innovations to life. As she points out, this means supporting ambitious projects on a daily basis, all with the aim of furthering meaningful innovations in the fields of life sciences & health.
“My ambition to make a larger contribution to society is why I decided to switch to Catalyze, where I come across impactful solutions on a daily basis and meet ambitious people with innovative ideas from across the world. In this position, I can make direct impact by supporting researchers in the development of their road to success, and bringing in the funding they need.
“In addition, these innovators are continuously focused on bringing new technologies, therapies, and solutions to the market to improve healthcare and society as a whole. At Catalyze, I’ve found the perfect balance between breakthrough science and real-world applications.”