Vici for Kerensa Broersen: ‘Enormous boost for our research’

| Jelle Posthuma

UT researcher Kerensa Broersen receives a Vici grant worth 1.5 million euros. With this funding, she will study how gut microbiota ‘communicate’ with the brain and what happens with diseases such as Parkinson’s, brain stem tumors and depression. ‘There is a reason why your gut is also called your second brain.’

Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk

Broersen, associate professor at the Department of Applied Stem Cell Technology, was delighted when she heard the news from the Dutch Research Council NWO. ‘I was in my car with my kids on my way to an escape room,’ she laughingly says. ‘Suddenly I got a call from a phone number from Utrecht. I thought: Oh right, the Vici announcement is today... So I decided to answer the phone. I pulled over the car to cheer with the kids.’

Vici grant

With a fund of 1.5 million euros, the Vici is the largest personal grant in the Netherlands. It is intended for highly experienced researchers. With this coveted grant, researchers can develop an innovative research and build their research group within five years. In the past two years, UT missed out on the largest personal grant in The Netherlands, but that has changed with the Vici going to Broersen.

A total of twelve researchers received Vici grants this round. The coronavirus turned the planning of NWO upside down. Today, only researchers from the applied and technical sciences and the health sciences (ZonMW) receive their Vici grant. The rest will follow later.

Broersen’s research, which was awarded a Vici grant, focuses on the question of how gut microbiotacommunicate’ with the brain and what happens with diseases such as Parkinson’s. ‘Often, in brain diseases such as depression, autism or Parkinson’s, there is a clear abnormality in the gut ass well, such as constipation. The question is how exactly the communication between gut microbiota and the brain works. It has always amazed me that these two things in your body have such an influence on each other. There is a reason that your gut is also called your second brain.’

In the research, the nervus vagus is of great importance. It is a neural pathway that connects the brain to the gut and other organs. Studies on this neural pathway are often performed on mice, Broersen says. ‘But these animals are of course very different from humans, anatomically and physiologically. Stem cells are therefore used to mimic human organs. A substance is then added to it to make an intestinal cell or brain cell.’

Broersen’s team places these simulated ‘mini-organs’ on a so-called microfluidic chip and investigates the interaction. ‘On the chip, we can mimic the organization of the organs and control the mini-intestines and brains in all sorts of ways, for example by adding bacteria or inserting or removing a gene. With the sensors on the chip, we can measure the influence this has. This provides fundamentally new insights.’

The relation between brain and gut has already been confirmed by several clinical studies for Parkinson’s disease, Broersen knows. With the research on the microfluidic chip, the associate professor wants to prove which molecules play a role. ‘Thanks to the funding, we can appoint three new PhDs, among other things. The Vici gives our research an enormous boost.’