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Dennis Löwik: "With our research we try to make cancer treatments more efficient and improve the quality of life of patients."

Interview with dr. Dennis Löwik (Synthetic Organic Chemistry group)

Dr. Dennis Löwik (51) is researcher in (bio) organic chemistry at the Institute for Molecules ad Materials (IMM) of Radboud University. He conducts research in bio-inspired materials, peptides and proteins, hydrogels, synthetic vaccines, and molecules to understand and influence certain cellular processes in order to investigate the relationship to diseases. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life of patients. Löwik studied chemistry at Radboud University and gained a PhD in medicinal and synthetic organic chemistry at Utrecht University. After several years of research at the University of Cambridge (UK) and the Technical University of Eindhoven, he joined the Radboud University in 2001. Löwik combines research with developing (digital) learning methods to improve and implement (small scale) innovations in education at the university.

We interviewed Dennis about his research, his background and himself.

How did you end up in the field of bioorganic chemistry?

“Like many things in life, it was a matter of coincidence and meeting the right people. During my studies and PhD I already was involved with peptide chemistry, which is my field of research. I currently focus on small molecules with biological functions, especially proteins and peptides. I enjoy designing and synthesizing molecules and improving existing methods. When I worked at Eindhoven University, I worked together with researchers from Radboud University. We collaborated successfully in various projects. When one of these researchers became a Professor in Bioorganic Chemistry in Nijmegen, I joined his group.”

What is so passion being a researcher?

“I find it interesting that with a very limited set of building blocks (so-called amino acids) very complicated structures, peptides and proteins can be built. Still, a lot is unpredictable; I find it challenging to do research to unravel these mysteries and to control peptides. What I also like is working with students in the lab. An ideal combination of experience with new and fresh insights. My research is fundamental, but also application-oriented. And very useful. It is wonderful to be able to contribute to a better quality of life for patients with my research.”

Cool to be able to contribute to a better world tomorrow. What have you achieved in your projects so far?

“In the last ten years I have focused more on the direction of drugs to specific cells, the sick cells. I develop systems, using so-called cell-penetrating peptides, which bring medicines to the cell where they are needed. Therapies are more effective in this way and this improves the quality of life for patients. Also, together with the Radboudumc, I am involved in research into prostate cancer. Early diagnosis of this disease is important. For example, we make fluorescent molecules that light up cancer cells. In this way doctors know before and during surgery exactly what to eliminate. We are now exploring with a large company whether we can actually apply it in the clinic. I am also researching a vaccine against the RSV virus. For the Western world it's a simple flu virus, but it's quite shocking that in third world countries 100,000 children die from it every year.”

You are also involved in educational innovations. Tell us about it.

“Education is very important; it determines your future. In order to get the best out of students, the education (process) needs to be constantly evaluated and you can learn and improve from new insights. As an educational innovator, I support in these projects and I am the bridge between teacher and student. This is done by taking very practical work off the hands of lecturers, in order to improve the quality of educational processes. For example, by bringing the internships of the various departments together in one place so that students have a better idea of what the possibilities are. At the same time, it can be used for administration and organisation. I have also developed an e-Learning tool with which students can be better prepared for working in the laboratory. By using this tool, they can work more independently and efficiently and achieve better learning results. Being involved in improving education keeps me sharp as teacher.”
Dennis Lowik

What else is nice to know about you?

“People say about me that I am an energetic person and in a positive sense do not know when to stop. Actually, I agree with that. I get a lot of energy from my work and doing research. I enjoy it and I like to convey that enthusiasm to the students. They are the scientists in the making. Off work, I like climbing and running. And I like going to festivals, to get away from it all and let all my energy flow.”

Bio-organic chemistry in the Löwik lab

In the Löwik lab at the Faculty of Science of Radboud University, research is carried out in the field of bio-organic and medicinal chemistry. The research group synthesizes peptides and tries to control and manipulate their structure and function. A peptide is a molecule consisting of a small number of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. Peptides have many different characteristics and they are the building blocks for creating new materials for tissue engineering and synthetic vaccines. In the group, peptides are used to design molecules for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer by specifically delivering drugs where needed. In particular, cell-penetrating peptides are an efficient means of drug delivery. This makes therapies more effective and improves the quality of life. The research group is part of the Institute for Molecules and Materials, an interdisciplinary research institute in physics and chemistry at Radboud University. In addition, Dennis Löwik teaches Molecular Sciences, is programme coordinator for the Chemistry programme and is an education innovator.Molecule that may help detect and cure prostate cancer
fig. 1: Molecule that may help detect and cure prostate cancer

CT scan of a mouse with prostate cancer (left top) with this molecule

fig. 2: CT scan of a mouse with prostate cancer (left top) with this molecule

Computer model of how this molecule fits into a protein (PSMA) found on prostate cancer cells
fig. 3: Computer model of how this molecule fits into a protein (PSMA) found on prostate cancer cells