Cisca Wijmenga#

Research over the last 5 years

Cisca Wijmenga (1964) has an outstanding reputation in the field of human genetics and is considered among the world leaders in the study of the genetics of coeliac disease. Her interdisciplinary research team covers genetics, molecular genetics, epidemiology, immunology, computational biology and bioinformatics. Over the past 15 years, her work has led to a huge advance in the understanding of the disease aetiology, pathology and its genetic basis, and also to models to identify people at risk for developing coeliac disease to allow for prevention and early treatment. She has identified 39 genetic risk loci for coeliac disease and made the important observation that several immune-mediated diseases share part of their genetic basis. This has given the field a strong new impetus, inspiring many projects on other such diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease. She first postulated the concept of ‘shared genetics for immune-mediated diseases’ in 2005 and was awarded a VICI grant by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). She has continued to refine this concept and confirmed that celiac disease does indeed share genetic factors with Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes, presenting the evidence in a highly cited review (Nature Reviews Genetics, 2009). The confirmation of her hypothesis inspired the development of the Immunochip by an international consortium for use in genome-wide association studies. This specific chip is used to screen DNA variants covering all the known immune-related genes. She has performed genome-wide association studies with this chip and they were the first group in the consortium to report their findings (Nature Genet, 2011).

One of Wijmenga’s strong points is her ability to integrate different types of results and to make good use of bioinformatic techniques. Early on, she was aware of the opportunities that bioinformatics could offer and was able to make it an important part of her research work. This enabled her to construct a human gene network, among other things (Am J Hum Genet, 2006). She is also the principal investigator of a large Top Institute Food and Nutrition program. In 2007 she was instrumental in setting up the University of Groningen’s Genomics Coordination Centre, which now supports many departments in the university. It also plays a key role in the analysis and interpretation of the Genome of the Netherlands data (GoNL), a nationwide collaboration led by Wijmenga. Her interdisciplinary approach, her unique and large collections of patient materials, her many research partners, and her use of cutting-edge technology mean she is in an excellent position to move beyond gene discovery and translate findings about genetic predisposition into insights on disease mechanisms. She was awarded an ERC advanced grant in 2012 to continue this work.

International visibility

Cisca Wijmenga was trained as a molecular biologist and obtained her PhD cum laude (in 1993) in the field of human genetics. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship under Dr. Francis Collins – at that time the leader of the Human Genome Project - at the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), National Institutes of Health (NIH), she started her own research group at Utrecht University. In 2003 she was appointed as a Professor of Human Genetics. In 2007 she was invited to become Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Groningen/UMC Groningen and head of the Department of Genetics, which has approximately 250 staff. Wijmenga is internationally oriented and is a visiting scientist for 6 weeks a year at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute, in Boston, USA, where she has a long-standing collaboration with Dr. Ramnik Xavier.

In both the Netherlands and the international arena, Wijmenga is greatly respected for her breadth of knowledge and interests, her ready access to an extensive international network, and for being an active and reliable collaborator. Her contribution to science over more than twenty years was recognized in 2012 by her appointment to the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). She is one of only a few female members in the science division under 50 years old in this prestigious Dutch institution. Further examples of her international distinctions include a Fogarty Fellowship to become a postdoctoral fellow at NIH (USA) in 1994, and a Fulbright Scholarship in 2001 to go on a sabbatical to the USA. In 2005 Wijmenga was awarded a prestigious NWO VICI grant and in 2012 an ERC advanced award. In 2009 she received a Distinguished Visiting Scientist Stipend from the Netherlands Genomics Initiative, and in 2012 a visiting scientist award from the Sigrid Jusélius Foundation (Finland).

Since 2002 she has had 27 PhD students graduate under her supervision, six of whom were awarded their doctorate degree cum laude. Twenty-three of her former PhD students have gone on to pursue a scientific career, either in combination with a medical speciality, or as researchers or postdoctoral fellows; many of them have received major fellowships and awards. She has published 342 articles in peer-reviewed journals including 50 in Cell, The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature journals (12,500 citations, H-index 55). Wijmenga’s international reputation is also evident from her frequent invitations to teach abroad and to speak at international meetings. In 2013, for example, she will speak at the FEBS congress in St Petersburg and at the 6th Leena Peltonen School of Human Genomics (Cambridge, UK). She sits on numerous national and international review committees and is often involved in co-organizing international scientific conferences.
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