Hugo Snippert (1982) studied Medical Biology at Utrecht University. In 2011, he obtained his PhD cum laude for his research conducted at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences. Following a year working at the Kavli Institute for Nanobiology at Delft University of Technology, he has been working on his own line of research within the Centre for Molecular Medicine at UMC Utrecht since 2012. His focus is on understanding the causes and consequences of the enormous diversity of tumour cells.
Snippert has been awarded several research grants, including a Veni and Vidi grant from NWO and an ERC Starting Grant. Since 2017, his research group has also been part of the national Oncode Institute.
Unravelling the behaviour of tumour cells
Scientific research in recent decades has yielded much new knowledge about cancer and resultant therapies. Yet many fundamental questions remain unanswered. Why do tumours develop so differently in patients? Why does a tumour become resistant? And can this be prevented?
To find the answers to such questions, it is crucial to understand the behaviour of tumour cells. Snippert’s contribution to such work is increasingly successful. In particular he combines microscopy and molecular genetics to understand why there is such a huge diversity of tumour cells and what the consequences of this are. He and his team make a special use of innovative techniques to image living cells.
A good example of this is the ‘confetti’ mouse model that Snippert developed by marking stem cells in a mouse intestine with fluorescent red, yellow, green or blue proteins through genetics. By then using sophisticated microscopes to study how all these differently coloured stem cells multiplied, Snippert was able to identify the competition between intestinal stem cells. Not only did his film recordings of the ‘confetti mouse’ create worldwide interest, but they simultaneously revealed new, fundamental insights into how stem cells keep intestinal tissue intact.
Moreover, Snippert was one of the first researchers to apply microscopy to organoids – mini-organs grown in the laboratory – where even biological processes in living cells can be studied in detail. Recently, Snippert succeeded in using organoid technology to track how a colon tumour responds to combined drug treatment. He was able to measure the molecular effect of the drugs ‘live’ in each individual tumour cell of a mini-organ and how the tumour cells subsequently responded to them. Such knowledge about the effect of targeted drugs is essential to the better understanding and improvement of therapies.
In addition, Snippert noticed that there is still little functional understanding of how benign tumours become malignant. Much research is done on the earliest onset of tumours, as well as metastases at the end, but little is known about the crucial ‘in-between’. This provided a reason for Snipper to make mini-organs of early tumours in the middle of the transition from benign to malignant. His aim is thus to gain a new basic understanding about this misunderstood transition in cell behaviour. Ultimately, Snippert hopes such knowledge will allow him to predict at an early stage whether or not a tumour will develop malignant features, so that each patient can receive tailor-made treatment in the future.