Dutch cell biologist Dr. Titia de Lange is one of the world’s leading experts on telomeres.

Her honors are many and include some of the most prestigious science awards, such as the Canada Gairdner International Award, the Dr. H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. The latter, the largest award in the sciences, (created by entrepreneurs including the founders of Google and Facebook) is given to scientists “who think big, take risks, and have made a significant impact on our lives.”

Born in the Netherlands, Dr. de Lange has been working in the United States for more than 30 years. She conducts groundbreaking research at The Rockefeller University in New York City, where she heads the Anderson Center for Cancer Research.

But what made a top Dutch scientist stay in the US? And what are telomeres?

Mysterious telomeres

Dr. de Lange learned of telomeres in the early 1980s when she was a biochemistry graduate student at the Netherlands Cancer Institute studying under Dr. Piet Borst, who later became the institute’s director.

There was little research on telomeres at the time, even though scientists assumed that telomeres were important protectors of the end of chromosomes, which carry genetic information. She became so fascinated that researching telomeres became her life’s work.

Human cells can detect and repair broken DNA in chromosomes, keeping chromosomes intact. The end of chromosomes resemble broken DNA, but cells do not start repairing them.

How do cells know that the end of chromosomes do not need to be repaired? Dr. de Lange decided to research the answer to this question, which she calls the “end-protection problem.”

Over the course of decades of research, she and her team discovered how telomeres hide the chromosome ends so they no longer look like DNA breaks. She also discovered that if telomeres do this job incorrectly and cells try to repair the end of chromosomes, they damage the chromosomes, potentially leading to cancer.

Dr. de Lange’s research has opened the door to understanding how telomeres work, and she continues to unravel what goes wrong when the protection of telomeres is lost, especially in the early stages of cancer.

Role models

When Dr. de Lange completed her doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Amsterdam at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in 1985, she went to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to work in the lab of Dr. Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel Prize in 1989 and later became the director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

“UCSF was the place to be for talented molecular biologists at that time,” Dr. de Lange says. “There were many small labs, and there was a vibrant atmosphere of frequent new findings.”

She initially planned to return to Amsterdam after completing her post-doctoral research at UCSF. However, she was inspired by the role of women in science at UCSF, which motivated her to stay in the United States.

“When I was a graduate student in the Netherlands, I knew there were very few women in the sciences, but it did not seem to be an important issue to me at that time,” Dr. de Lange says. “Only when I came to UCSF and saw women running their own labs and women being invited to be seminar speakers did I realize that women could have faculty positions and be successful, fun, and happy. This really impacted me. Young women need to see women in leadership positions.”

Dr. de Lange says she remains hopeful for the changing role of women in science in the Netherlands, where one in five professors is a woman. Changes in the workforce will occur as younger generations of women enter the sciences.

“It will take a whole generation to turn this around and get more women in leadership positions,” she says. She feels that these women will then serve as role models to other female scientists looking to take on leadership roles.

“Dutch science has a long way to go if they want to catch up with the US in terms of gender balance in science. That said, US institutions are not there yet either,” Dr. de Lange says. “Many institutions here are doing a lot of soul searching to figure out how they can support women in science better.”

A continuing quest

After researching telomeres for more than 30 years, Dr. de Lange shows no signs of slowing down. At 63, she remains passionate when she speaks about telomeres and is more inspired than ever to solve the puzzle of telomeres.

“We figured out what telomeres are and how they work, but don’t understand them fully,” she says. “There is still so much more to discover. I want to understand the exact structure of telomeres. What is the exact role of telomeres in early stages of cancer? Thirty years later, I still have the same question. How does it work?”