Anthal Smits, on the frontier of regenerative medicine and immunology

Anthal Smits’ interests in technology and the human body landed him in a Master’s and PhD program in Biomedical Engineering. The research on cells and biomaterials caught his attention and he now works passionately on this subject, focusing on the research field combining regeneration and the immune system. 

Setting out his path

Anthal received his PhD in 2014 and continued his career in the company LifeTec Group. After a few years, his rational choice for a more certain career perspective didn’t give him the fulfillment he was looking for. He always kept in touch with his former colleagues at the department of Biomedical Engineering at TU/e and when the opportunity presented itself he decided to take the leap back towards academia. Here he finds the freedom to follow his ambitions as a researcher.

After a postdoc period, Anthal started in August 2016 as assistant professor in the research group Soft Tissue Engineering & Mechanobiology; the group of Prof. Carlijn Bouten has a great reputation and the research is continuing in an interesting direction. Plenty of reason for Anthal to rejoin this group. He recently received a Talent grant that will help him get a foothold, starting and strengthening collaborations with research groups abroad, setting out his own path.

Using the immune system to our benefit

In regenerating soft tissues in situ (inside the body, in the destined location), it proofs to be beneficial to use the natural inflammatory response of the body to our benefit. Most traditional implants are designed to evoke as little reaction as possible, avoiding inflammation and rejection of the implant by the body. However, Anthal wants to put the macrophages of the immune system to good use.

Macrophages are the foremen of the immune system; the macrophages have multiple purposes, but are known to instruct other cells and thereby steering the regenerative process in the intended direction. Depending on the environmental stimuli they sense, the macrophages decide whether a scar will form or regeneration will kick off.  Furthermore, the macrophages dispose of foreign material, which is vital for regeneration because if it’s unsuccessful, an unwanted chronic inflammation will take hold. 

One of the challenges lies in the differences in the immune system between for example animals and humans, young and old, men and women, the healthy and the sick. The impact of these differences on the possible clinical application of the research is imminent.

Curiosity as a driving force

A new research field of possibilities opens up for Anthal in combining the extended knowledge on regeneration and immunology. In the research group of Carlijn Bouten, the current focus lies on regeneration of the cardiovascular system. However the first step towards application is fundamental research; Anthal’s curiosity drives him to figure out how regeneration works and what the role of the immune system therein is, and, in addition to the current cardiovascular applications, he expects these fundamentals to be broadly translatable to other application fields in future work. 

Dreams and ambitions

Anthal is very passionate about his research and strives to keep working on his research and build his own research group. Successfully completing his tenure track is the first next step towards his future career as a researcher.

The challenge in education

There is no clear line between education and research, which Anthal sees as very challenging as well as beneficial. Preparing and giving lectures compels you to zoom out from the details of your research and see the bigger picture. Anthal currently guides three PhD candidates and he started his new Bachelor’s course, concerning the host response to biomaterials.

This is the second article in a series introducing our new departmental colleagues.