Europe

Freek Vonk appointed endowed professor at VU Amsterdam

UV Amsterdam News

The Executive Board of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has appointed the biologist Freek Vonk as its endowed professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry as of 1 February 2020.

This chair has been endowed by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, and is focused on the opportunities offered by natural toxins in the development of new medicines and a new generation of snakebite antidotes. The endowed chair is embedded within the Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences department of the Faculty of Science. The 0.2 FTE appointment is for a period of five years. Besides scientific research Vonk will teach students and supervise their graduation in a variety of Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes.

Developing medicines
Freek Vonk is an internationally recognized expert in evolutionary molecular biology, particularly in the field of snake venom. The endowed chair in Evolutionary Biochemistry will strengthen a variety of research groups within the S&F department and will focus on the biology, origins and evolution of these venoms and their accompanying, profoundly evolved systems, along with the medical treatment of poisonous snake bites.

Snake venom is a cocktail of dozens – sometimes more than a hundred – different poisonous components that subtly disrupt all kinds of vital physiological processes including breathing, circulation, and nervous transmission. The composition of snake venom therefore offers promising possibilities in the development of new medicines. Most of these possibilities have not yet been identified, not least because venoms are complex mixtures that are difficult to study even with the help of modern biological and chemical techniques. Many kinds of venom are also difficult to obtain. In his new position Vonk will focus on integrating advanced chemical analysis techniques with pharmacology in order to better understand the toxicity of venom and identify potential new medicines.

Snakebites
As a professor Vonk will also focus on research into new snakebite treatments. Poisonous snakebites cause some of the most deadly illnesses in the tropics. Every year millions of people are bitten, with at least 150,000 dying as a result and more than half a million permanently injured. The current generation of antidotes leaves much to be desired, has many pharmacological side effects, and is not invariably effective.

Vinod Subramaniam, Rector Magnificus of VU Amsterdam: “With Professor Vonk’s appointment we are not only gaining a talented young scientist, but also someone who can turn his natural toxins research into pharmaceutical solutions. So we are very grateful to Naturalis for endowing this new chair.”

Freek Vonk on his appointment: “I’m a scientist in heart and soul. If you look at my career, with scientific publications, grants and awards, it’s an academic career that’s taken a special turn in the media. This professorship is a fantastic step in my scientific career, and I am fully committed to taking on its responsibilities.”

Freek Vonk
Freek Vonk (36) gained his Master’s in Biology in 2008 at Leiden University, and his PhD at Leiden in 2012 with the thesis Snake Evolution and the Application of Snake Venom. Between 2012 and 2014 he did research with the Molecular Ecology and Evolution Group of Bangor University in Wales (UK). Over the years he has published articles in many scientific journals including Nature, Cell, and PNAS.

Vonk has been linked to the Naturalis Biodiversity Center as a researcher since 2012. He has received numerous awards and grants, including a TopTalent (2008), a Rubicon (2012), and a Veni grant (2014) from NWO. He was also a recipient of the Eureka Prize for Science Communication awarded by NWO and KNAW. He is particularly well known as an inspired scientist with a passion for education who has popularized science through all sorts of media appearances and public events.

Photo: NATURALIS/[Raymond Rutting] 

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