My research

I have been investigating the impact of aging on the human immune system. My work has focused on T and B cell aging, and its implications for the development of autoimmune diseases in the elderly. During my time as a PhD student (promotor prof. dr. A. Mieke H. Boots), I have built up a prospective cohort of healthy, elderly individuals. Currently, we have collected clinical data and blood samples from these study subjects for 5 consecutive years. In addition, we obtained blood samples from healthy, young subjects and elderly patients with late onset autoimmune diseases. We have already learned much about the aging immune system by comparing the immune parameters of these different study cohorts. For many years, it has been known that the production of naive T cells drops dramatically with age. I have identified novel mechanisms by which already existing naive T cells are maintained on to high age. I also found evidence that preservation of these cells might be a risk factor for development of late onset autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, I have found that regulatory T cells increase during healthy aging, but decrease in older patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Development of circulating autoantibodies in the elderly could be linked to a decline of regulatory B cells, whereas inflammatory B cells came out as novel players in the development of two autoimmune diseases that strictly affect the elderly, i.e. giant cell arteritis and polymyalgia rheumatica. Overall, my research has provided novel insights into successful and pathological immune aging in humans.

Interesting findings

  • Interleukin-2 promotes the long-term survival of naive CD4+ T cells in humans
  • Regulatory T cells increase during healthy aging
  • Development of autoantibodies in the elderly can be linked to a decline of regulatory B cells
  • Interleukin-6 producing B cells promote the development of autoimmune diseases in the elderly

My interest in aging research

Extending our insight into immune aging is important, as the immune system plays a critical role in development of major causes of death and morbidity in the elderly (i.e. infections, cancer, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases). As a medical doctor, I want to understand why my patients develop these diseases. The ultimate goal will be to develop and apply immunological interventions that  will target immune perturbations in the elderly. Translational research will therefore be at the core of my ongoing research.

My institution(s)

  • Department of Rheumatology and Clinical Immunology
  • Vasculitis Expertise Center Groningen
  • Translation Immunology Groningen (TRIGR)
  • University Medical Center Groningen