Jacco van Rheenen

LAUREATE Biomedical Sciences 2019

Jacco van Rheenen

Jacco van Rheenen (1978) studied Biology at the University of Amsterdam and went on to obtain his PhD, in 2005, at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and Leiden University. After two years of research at Yeshiva University in the USA he returned to the Netherlands, first as junior and then becoming a senior group leader at the Hubrecht Institute.

He is now Professor of Intravital Microscopy at the University Medical Center Utrecht and senior group leader at both the Oncode Institute and the Netherlands Cancer Institute.

Van Rheenen has received various awards including a NWO VIDI grant and an ERC Consolidator grant, but he also distinguishes himself with awards for the communication of science. In 2017 he received the prestigious Josef Steiner Cancer Research Foundation Award, a prize of 1 million Swiss Francs (about 900,000 euro).



Jacco van Rheenen uses groundbreaking microscopy to track individual cells in living tissue. In this way he uncovers how cancer starts and spreads.

Understanding escaped cancer cells

For many, cancer is an elusive yet malevolent phenomenon that starts when faults occur in DNA. But there are a lot of different kinds of cancer cells, and a tumour is a highly varied collection of cells. Not every cell in a tumour is malevolent, and not every cell is capable of metastasizing to other sites in the body.

Jacco van Rheenen studies these differences using groundbreaking ‘intravital’ microscopy. This means that he can track individual cancer cells in living organisms for up to weeks on end. The cells are made visible using fluorescence so that they stand out against the rest of the tissue, which in turn allows the behaviour of individual cells to be observed.

By looking at cancer cells in this way, van Rheenen was the first to capture the metastasizing of cancer cells on camera. The images shows that while many cells are able to leave the tumour and enter the blood stream, only a select few are able to penetrate tissue in another location and start a distant tumour.

The intravital microscopy that van Rheenen uses helps the understanding of how a tumour starts, what exactly defines a cancer cell, what they do, and why there are so many differences between tumour cells. What happens when a cell leaves the tumour, what happens when it penetrates other tissue, and how does it communicate with other cells? Uncovering these aspects of the behaviour of individual cells provides leads for the treatment of cancer.