Portretfoto Marcel Verbeek

Marcel Verbeek appointed professor of Translational research Neurodegenerative disorders

Marcel Verbeek has been appointed professor of Translational research Neurodegenerative disorders at the Radboudumc / Radboud University. He unravels the causes of brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. He also searches for new biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid, which can help in early diagnosis of these disorders.

Marcel Verbeek's research focuses on the two most common disorders among the elderly in the Netherlands: Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. ‘These appear to be very different diseases, but yet they share many similarities with regard to the underlying biological processes’, he says. ‘In both diseases, nerve cells die due to accumulation of proteins in the brain. I investigate this process in more detail. I also search for new substances that can detect these diseases at an early stage, so-called biomarkers.’

Verbeek  measures those biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid. He has been head of the Dutch Reference Laboratory for Cerebrospinal Fluid Diagnostics since 1999. ‘We examine the cerebrospinal fluid for biomarkers that indicate the condition of the brain, and that reveal a brain disorder early on. Examples of these include proteins that reflect whether nerve cells and blood vessel cells are still functioning properly, or substances that indicate ongoing inflammation. We also investigate the first signs of protein accumulation.’

Pancakes

By the time the proteins are piled up like pancakes and form large cables that are even visible with a microscope, it is too late. Verbeek: ‘At that stage, the damage is irreversible. In many cases, that process has been going on for fifteen or twenty years. It starts with normal, healthy proteins that fold incorrectly. Those misfolded proteins slowly start to clump together and we try to measure the initially formed tiny aggregates. That's a promising early biomarker, especially in Parkinson's.’

For Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, there is no preventive or curative therapy. So why is early and accurate diagnosis important? ‘On a global scale, millions of people suffer from these disorders. Partly because we still cannot accurately diagnose these diseases early on, we are unable to offer customized therapy’, Verbeek replies. ‘Thanks to new biomarkers we can characterize patients better and provide more personalized treatment and guidance.’

Role of the gut

In addition to unraveling processes in the brain itself, Verbeek also investigates the relationship between the gut and brain. ‘We see more and more evidence of a link between the microorganisms that reside in our intestines and the development of Parkinson's disease. For example, we learned that people initially respond very well to the drug L-DOPA, but the effect quickly diminishes. This may be caused by increased abundance of bacteria in the gut that break down L-DOPA. This reduces the effectiveness of the drug.’

Verbeek and his team are tracking down a similar process, but based on an enzyme that the human body produces itself. ‘This enzyme also breaks down L-DOPA, and its levels increase when patients are given L-DOPA. We now include measuring the levels of this enzyme in a clinical trial. If the levels are high, it's probably better to treat these patients with another drug than L-DOPA. This research is therefore directly relevant for the treatment of patients. This is what I love about my job: I get inspiration from clinical questions, and we apply the results of our research directly into clinical diagnostics.’

Career

Verbeek (Brielle, 1964) studied Chemical Engineering in Delft. After one and a half years of biomedical research at TNO in Leiden, he started a PhD at the Department of Pathology of the Radboudumc. He was a visiting scientist at the University of California, Irvine CA, USA. He obtained his PhD cum laude for his dissertation entitled ‘Inflammatory mechanisms and pericyte involvement in Alzheimer's disease’. After several years as a postdoc, he started working at the Department of Neurology in 1999.

During his career Verbeek received many grants, including Vidi, NIH and several ZonMW grants, also as consortium leader. He is also a member of the scientific advisory boards of Alzheimer Nederland, Netherlands Brain Foundation, Dutch CAA Association and AADC Research Trust. The appointment is effective December 1, 2022, for a period of five years.