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“He opened up a whole field”

“He opened up a whole field”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Mireille Sthijns inspired by Arne Holmgren

“If I have looked further than others, it is only because I have been carried by those who were great.” Dixit Isaac Newton. The giant in the field of Ph.D. candidate Mireille Sthijns is Arne Holmgren, the Swedish professor of Biochemistry who always brings his dachshund to work

Exactly a year ago, Sthijns (25) went to visit the Swede in the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, where he has worked since 1968. “There was a presentation on the first day, to which I had also been invited. When I sat down, a member of staff immediately came up to me. If maybe I could sit somewhere else, it was somewhere in the middle of the hall, because this is where Holmgren always sat. No, there was no name tag on the chair.”

Sthijns, a Ph.D. candidate at the department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, focuses on ‘oxidative stress’ or the damage that free radicals cause in the body to cells and DNA. These reactive molecules are created in cells as a result of the combustion of sugar. The body is able to protect itself against this and it was Arne Holmgren who discovered and mapped out this protection system in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies.

“He is known as a redox pioneer, redox being a contraction of reduction and oxidation. He has a tremendous list of prizes to his name; the Nobel Prize is not one of them. He did sit on the committee that awards the Nobel Prize for Medicine. What is more important, is the fact that his discovery opened up a whole field that was still more or less in its infancy. There is still more to be discovered than we already know, he says himself.”

It is not just the protection systems but also antioxidants in vegetables and fruit that protect against oxidation. Sthijns is trying to find out whether flavonoids - antioxidants that can be found in onions and apples, among others - strengthen or weaken the body’s systems. She has already carried out the research, but can’t say very much about it as the study hasn’t been published yet, she says. Holmgren’s group is now studying whether these systems may play a role in diseases such as cancer, obesity and diabetes.

Sthijns only knew Holmgren from his articles, but at the Karolinska Institute she suddenly met him every day, with his dachshund happily frolicking beside him. “Funny to discover that he is just a human being too. He knows a lot, is a walking encyclopaedia. He can also be critical, as I noticed during my final presentation in June. I met him again in September at a congress in Barcelona. I had won a prize for a poster presentation and he congratulated me on it.”

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