Jurjen Tel and his infectious passion for the dendritic cell

Immunologist Jurjen Tel started his scientific career with a Bachelor in Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden. His graduation project at the RadboudUMC Nijmegen made him decide to obtain his Master’s degree in Groningen and consequently apply for a PhD position in Nijmegen. After receiving his PhD cum laude in 2013, he continued his research in Nijmegen with his NWO-Veni grant awarded in the same year. In 2016 he took up the challenge to start his own research group at TU/e in the field of immunoengineering, with a focus on decoding cellular interactions. 

Immunoengineering is the application of engineering tools and principles to study the immune system in health and disease, and to develop new therapies or improve existing therapies by enhancing or modulating immune responses.

Research across disciplines

Our immune system comprises two distinct parts: the innate system and the adaptive system. The innate system although aspecific is very fast and our first line of defense. The adaptive system is highly specific and protects us against an enormous range of pathogens and malignant cells. A specialized subset of cells has the unique capacity to link these two distinct systems, they are called dendritic cells.

Activation of T cells (1,2) Dendritic cells absorb molecules from the bloodstream or tissue that indicate the presence of a disease. They analyze the molecule and travel to a lymph node via the lymphatics (3), where they present the molecules on their surface (4). This triggers a response in other immune cells, killer T cells, specializing them to fight this specific disease or molecule (5,6).

The past decades, researchers have learned a great deal about dendritic cells and their functionality; foremost the way a single dendritic cell can start an immune response and mobilize a population of cells. Researchers classify the cells based on the static molecules on their surface and functions. However, Jurjen wants to know if groups of dendritic cells of the same classification are actually homogeneous, or if there is a heterogeneity influencing their functionality.

To achieve this goal, he focusses on research on a single/few cell level, very consciously influencing the cellular micro-environment and gaining knowledge that can later help to modulate and steer the immune system. For this research, he needs to use and understand specific technology (e.g. microfluidics), and the department of Biomedical Engineering at TU Eindhoven is the ideal workplace for this kind of research that crosses disciplines. 

Influencing the immune response

Jurjen’s passion lies in understanding how single immune cells, and in particular dendritic cells, start and mount population-wide immune responses and to determine why they work in this manner. However, it’s rewarding that it could lead to applications in health care in the future. For example, in malignant tumors, where dendritic cells are present however they repress the immune response denying the immune system the chance to remove the tumor. Furthermore, some dendritic cells are also implicated to have a crucial role in autoimmune diseases, where they are overactive.

Infectious enthusiasm and ambition

Jurjen’s enthusiasm and ambition are infectious, and he strives to build an outstanding research group at TU/e with a strong single cell technology platform in the years to come. He is currently taking root in our department and our university and with his first two PhD candidates who started in April, he is taking his first steps filling the blank canvas he was given. He is excited about this unique opportunity and the freedom he received.

He enjoys sharing his passion with future generations of researchers, since he beliefs education is a vital part of his profession of transferring and carrying out knowledge. 

Cup of coffee

His integration in the department, university and Noord-Brabant (as a Notherner) is going very well. The open-door culture in the department is very beneficial for his preferred work routine of walking by with a cup of coffee in hand. Brabant’s fifteen minutes (‘Brabants kwartiertje’) takes some getting used to, being punctual as he is (or tries to be), however as a fan of good food and drinks he fits right in.

Last but not least, it characterizes Jurjen that he is a true family man. Even with his large career ambitions and dreams, spending time with his wife and two small children always comes first!

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