“Set your own boundaries”

“Set your own boundaries”

Dies Natalis Master's Thesis Prize Winner: Jairo Lommen

12-03-2024 · Interview

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer is more or less like pronouncing the death sentence. Having been diagnosed, patients usually live for no more than a year. There is no therapy, only a life-extending operation. Until now: Jairo Lommen (23) researched a way to ‘control’ the immune system in such a way that it attacked the tumour after all.

Working weeks of up to 50 hours, overworked colleagues and very little sleep. That is what life looked like for Jairo Lommen, from Venlo, for a whole year. But that didn’t faze him: “I always give my best and, after all, it was my own choice to do this.” Lommen did his research internship for the master’s of Biomedical Sciences in Leuven. His interest in the human immune system originated from when he was doing his bachelor’s, when he studied lung and brain cancer. Through others he came upon research on a therapy for pancreatic cancer. Lommen: “There are certain immune cells – so-called T-cells – that recognise cancer cells and destroy them. But they wear out quickly and die, because there is not enough oxygen and nutrition in the tumour. They are as it were, ‘turned off’.  We have found this ‘OFF button’, and removed it, so now the cells live longer and actually also attack the cancer cells,” he says enthusiastically.


He tested all this on mice. A useful experience when you are striving for a career in research, right? Lommen is a little less enthusiastic. “I felt it was fine when the mice were already numb or dead, but I sometimes saw them in a lot of pain. I found that very difficult.” The pain was mainly in the group that did not receive treatment, the control group. In the other group, the ‘manipulated’ T-cells reduced the tumour by half. Could these cells not completely remove the tumour? “Perhaps they could, but we couldn’t test that. The control group was too sick on day twelve to continue so we stopped the experiment.”

Setting boundaries

Lommen got on well with his supervisor. Even the head researcher, who was “very strict with everyone”, liked the trainee from Venlo. “When you showed dedication, it was good.” There was no problem there. When a shitload of criticism was thrown at him, he didn’t cave but thought “step up.” A bit too much, he now thinks. He has learned a lesson from it: set your own boundaries, someone else won’t, he noticed in Leuven. “Ultimately, you may have a publication in a prestigious journal such as Nature, but if you are completely burned out, it is no good to you.” For his future job, therefore, he wants less pressure, so that he can “live a normal life as well.” A PhD in immunology, but not “just the first subject that comes along, it has to be applied medicine or therapy.” And Belgium does not bear repeating: “In the Netherlands, the rules for work with laboratory animals are stricter. I can relate to that more.”


Thesis prizes

Every year during the Dies Natalis (Foundation Day celebrations), prizes are awarded to students who wrote the best bachelor’s and master’s theses. They receive a certificate and an amount of money (500 euro). Observant interviewed eight of them. 

Illustration: Simone Golob

Categories: Science
Tags: Dies Natalis 2024,master thesis, thesis prizes,pancreatic cancer,therapy

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