Radiologist Jamal Guenoun discovered an easy way to follow stem cells in the body by means of an MRI scan. Along the way, he realised that doing a PhD is rather like Star Wars.

magine that you are sitting
next to your uncle at a
birthday party. How do you
explain in just a few sentences
what your research
is all about?

“We are short of organ donors. An alternative is allowing stem cells to form new cells in the failing organs. However, that is not working all too well yet, so I wanted to see what stem cells actually do in the body. Do they really turn into the cardiac muscle cells they are supposed to turn into? And is there a way to visualise this process? I demonstrated in test animals that this can be done by means of gadolinium liposomes, bubbles of fat that attach to the cell membrane and are then absorbed. This enables us to follow stem cells around, without having to perform all sorts of complicated measurements.”

How will the world benefit from
your PhD thesis?

“I hope that my PhD thesis will give other scientists a better understanding of how to follow stem cells in the body. This constitutes a small but essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle that will make stem cell therapy more successful.”

What was the absolute nadir of
your time as a PhD student?

“I had a serious car accident in 2010, two years after embarking on my PhD. I lost control of my steering wheel while driving in snow. I suffered a fractured vertebra and had to spend half a year in rehab. I was close to giving up then. But quitting was not an option, because that would mean I had failed. But if my copromotor is to be believed, the accident only made me stronger.”

What was it like to work with test

“It was a daily struggle. I was operating on rats that did not need surgery. I constantly had to justify to myself what I was doing. Who will benefit from this? How do I make this relatively pain-free? I am not saying that working with test animals does not justify the outcomes, because this type of research cannot be carried out in any other way. But I will think very, very hard before embarking on another study involving test animals.”

cover proefschrift Jamal Guenoun

About the cover

“I am a huge Star Wars fan. But of course it is a metaphor, too. In my study I contrasted gadolinium liposomes, which show up white in an MRI scan, with a substance that shows up black. It does not take a great deal of imagination to arrive at the bright side versus the dark side. Moreover, Star Wars struck me as being an appropriate analogy for doing a PhD: you are projected into a black hole and light years pass before you finish the thing. In addition, everyone experiences a struggle between a dark side and a bright side at some point in their lives. For me, it was working with test animals.”