Hermelijn Smits professor at Leiden University

Lung Foundation Netherlands (Longfonds) is happy to announce the recent appointment of Hermelijn Smits as full professor at Leiden University. Lung Foundation Netherlands has been working closely with Smits for many years to find a treatment that protects children against asthma. Smits is currently leading the international research programme LONGFONDS | Accelerate, which is aimed at preventing asthma.

Microorganisms and the immune system

'My professorship Immune modulation through host-commensal interactions covers the field of microorganisms (also known as commensals) that live in and around our body and their influence on the immune system”, explains Smits. “Commensals can be bacteria, among others in the intestinal flora, but also viruses, fungi or worm parasites. They have an important function. They help our body to prevent pathogens from entering. But they also help to educate the immune system. This is also known as ‘immune modulation’.'

Asthma and the immune system

Asthma is an overreaction of the immune system to often harmless substances. Educating the immune system is very important to prevent asthma. Commensals therefore play an important role in this. 'There are fewer and fewer commensals in our bodies and skin flora', says Smits. 'As a result, our immune system misses out on the education of which substances it should or should not respond to. The result is that asthma is becoming more common.'

Where it started…

Smits has been gaining knowledge on this topic ever since the PhD research performed on a Longfonds research grant. 'Then I saw that gut bacteria have a beneficial effect on the immune system. They ensure that the immune system learns what real pathogens are and what it does not need to respond to. This beneficial effect occurs throughout the body, including the lungs. Since then I have started looking at more and more different commensals and their influence on our body and immune system.'

Working together

'I am committed to ensuring that we can start using the beneficial effects of commensals for treatments. Commensals secrete all kinds of substances that influence the immune system. I want to further map out these substances and translate them into a treatment for patients.'

It is a mission, Longfonds and Hermelijn Smits share. 'We want the same thing”, says Smits. “Namely treating lung diseases and, ultimately also being able to prevent them. It is fantastic that we can work together on this.'