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Ruben van Boxtel: 'I just love my job'

Who are the dedicated scientists that form The Princess Máxima Center? During this ‘Childhood Cancer Awareness Month’, besides the stories of our children, we put one of our researchers in the spotlight and focus on the person behind the science.

Ruben van Boxtel works as a group leader at the Princess Máxima Centerand started as an Oncode Investigator at the beginning of 2019. The overall aim of his research is to determine why children can develop cancer and study the genotoxic effects of cancer treatment in normal tissues.

What made you decide to study childhood cancer and, more specifically, leukemia? 

“Knowing more about what happens when children get tumour cells, will most likely increase our knowledge of cancer as a whole, from its precise causes to potential treatments. It doesn’t just feel highly unfair when children get cancer, from a biological viewpoint it’s a paradox. After all, the common explanation for the fact that our risk of getting cancer starts to significantly increase after our forties is that cells gradually accumulate DNA mutations with age. The older a cell, the more mutations it contains which in turn heightens the risk that one occurs that may result in cancer.”

“Childhood cancer not only thwarts this theory, it seems to suggest that instead of age-related mutation accumulation, the tissue context in which malignant cells are able to grow out plays an equally important role.”

“Childhood leukemia in particular seems to offer important clues about the potential role of mutation accumulation and selection in cancer initiation. For instance, 10 - 15 percent of newborns with Down Syndrome show a transient form of leukemia that usually spontaneously disappears within a few months after birth. Although approximately 20 percent of these children will eventually progress to a more malignant form of leukemia, the remaining 80 percent won’t develop cancer. Somehow the body manages to keep the leukemia in check. If we can understand the underlying mechanism causing this, we may be able to improve cancer treatment.”

Besides being an Oncode Investigator and having your own research group at the Princess Máxima Center, you are a father of five. What’s your secret to combining a highly demanding job with a busy family life?

“First, I simply love my job. You could say it’s my hobby really. From doing the actual research to mentoring young people. And I am lucky to have a great, excellent team, so what more could one ask for? And of course, I love spending time with my family. So while both areas require time and attention, they also give me loads of energy.”

“From a practical perspective, I am lucky that my wife works part-time. And we moved to live closer to both our parents, who kindly help out where needed. On top of that I have flexible working hours, which mean that I can take the kids to school and pick them up at least once a week.

“What also helps is that my kids are fairly flexible and easy-going, perhaps because they are used to sharing attention, since they are with five. And the older they get, the more independent they become. Three years ago, when my youngest was still a baby and I was doing a post-doc, I sometimes struggled to combine work and family life. Back then, it would have been more difficult to do my current job.”

Although the survival rate of children with cancer has gone up, a quarter of all children with cancer admitted to the Princess Máxima Center still dies. Isn’t it hard to be confronted with childhood cancer on a daily basis, through your research work there? 

“Children getting cancer and dying of it is just horrible. Each time my wife and I watch a documentary about the Princess Máxima Center we end up shedding tears. But childhood cancer, no matter how unpalatable, is also a fact of life and the Princess Máxima Center seeks to give the children the best possible care and quality of life. So, I switch into another mode, as it were, at the center. Seeing those sick kids fuels my motivation; they are daily reminders of the importance of my work.”

“Also, even when they are very sick, kids will be kids. The patients can be very playful: you don’t want to know how many times a kid bumped into me in the corridor on his bike or ran me down with her go-kart (laughs). When they are staying positive and doing all they can to get better, then who am I to sit in a corner crying? I am of much more use to them if I simply focus on getting the best job done.”