“One thing I have learned is that hypothesis-driven research tends not to be productive when you are in an unknown territory.”
Clevers entered medical school at Utrecht University in The Netherlands in 1978 while simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in biology. Drawn to working with people in the clinic, Clevers had a training position in pediatrics lined up after medical school, but then mentors persuaded him to spend an additional year converting the master’s degree to a PhD in immunology. “At the end of that year, looking back, I got more satisfaction from the research than from seeing patients.” Clevers also had an aptitude for benchwork, publishing four papers from his PhD year. “They were all projects I had made up myself. The department didn’t do the kind of research I was doing,” he says. “Now that I look back, it’s surprising that an inexperienced PhD student could come up with a project and publish independently.”
Clevers studied T- and B-cell signaling; he set up assays to visualize calcium ion flux and demonstrated that the ions act as messengers to activate human B cells, signaling through antibodies on the cell surface. “As soon as the experiment worked, I got T cells from the lab next door and did the same experiment. That was my strategy: as soon as something worked, I would apply it elsewhere and didn’t stop just because I was a B-cell biologist and not a T-cell biologist. What I learned then, that I have continued to benefit from, is that a lot of scientists tend to adhere to a niche. They cling to these niches and are not that flexible. You think scientists are, but really most are not.”
Here, Clevers talks about promoting a collaborative spirit in research, the art of doing a pilot experiment, and growing miniature organs in a dish.
Re-search? Clevers was born in Eindhoven, in the south of The Netherlands. The town was headquarters to Philips Electronics, where his father worked as a businessman, and his mother took care of Clevers and his three brothers. Clevers did well in school but his passion was sports, especially tennis and field hockey, “a big thing in Holland.” Then in 1975, at age 18, he moved to Utrecht University, where he entered an intensive, biology-focused program. “I knew I wanted to be a biology researcher since I was young. In Dutch, the word for research is ‘onderzoek’ and I knew the English word ‘research’ and had wondered why there was the ‘re’ in the word, because I wanted to search but I didn’t want to do re-search—to find what someone else had already found.”
Opportunity to travel. “I was very disappointed in my biology studies, which were old-fashioned and descriptive,” says Clevers. He thought medicine might be more interesting and enrolled in medical school while still pursuing a master’s degree in biology at Utrecht. For the master’s, Clevers had to do three rotations. He spent a year at the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD) in Nairobi, Kenya, and six months in Bethesda, Maryland, at the National Institutes of Health. “Holland is really small, so everyone travels.” Clevers saw those two rotations more as travel explorations. In Nairobi, he went on safaris and explored the country in Land Rovers borrowed from the institute. While in Maryland in 1980, Clevers—with the consent of his advisor, who thought it was a good idea for him to get a feel for the U.S.—flew to Portland, Oregon, and drove back to Boston with a musician friend along the Canadian border. He met the fiancé of political activist and academic Angela Davis in New York City and even stayed in their empty apartment there.
Life and lab lessons. Back in Holland, Clevers joined Rudolf Eugène Ballieux’s lab at Utrecht University to pursue his PhD, for which he studied immune cell signaling. “I didn’t learn much science from him, but I learned that you always have to create trust and to trust people around you. This became a major theme in my own lab. We don’t distrust journals or reviewers or collaborators. We trust everyone and we share. There will be people who take advantage, but there have only been a few of those. So I learned from Ballieux to give everyone maximum trust and then change this strategy only if they fail that trust. We collaborate easily because we give out everything and we also easily get reagents and tools that we may need. It’s been valuable to me in my career. And it is fun!”
On a mission. “Once I decided to become a scientist, I knew I needed to train seriously. Up to that point, I was totally self-trained.” From an extensive reading of the immunology literature, Clevers became interested in how T cells recognize antigens, and headed off to spend a postdoc studying the problem in Cox Terhorst’s lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “Immunology was young, but it was very exciting and there was a lot to discover. I became a professional scientist there and experienced how tough science is.” In 1988, Clevers cloned and characterized the gene for a component of the T-cell receptor (TCR) called CD3-epsilon, which binds antigen and activates intracellular signaling pathways.
On the fast track in Holland. Clevers returned to Utrecht University in 1989 as a professor of immunology. Within one month of setting up his lab, he had two graduate students and a technician, and the lab had cloned the first T cell–specific transcription factor, which they called TCF-1, in human T cells. When his former thesis advisor retired, Clevers was asked, at age 33, to become head of the immunology department. While the appointment was high-risk for him and for the department, Clevers says, he was chosen because he was good at multitasking and because he got along well with everyone.
Problem-solving strategy. “My strategy in research has always been opportunistic. One thing I have learned is that hypothesis-driven research tends not to be productive when you are in an unknown territory. I think there is an art to doing pilot experiments. So we have always just set up systems in which something happens and then you try and try things until a pattern appears and maybe you formulate a small hypothesis. But as soon as it turns out not to be exactly right, you abandon it. It’s a very open-minded type of research where you question whether what you are seeing is a real phenomenon without spending a year on doing all of the proper controls.”
Trial and error. Clevers’s lab found that while TCF-1 bound to DNA, it did not alter gene expression, despite the researchers’ tinkering with promoter and enhancer assays. “For about five years this was a problem. My first PhD students were leaving and they thought the whole TCF project was a failure,” says Clevers. His lab meanwhile cloned TCF homologs from several model organisms and made many reagents including antibodies against these homologs. To try to figure out the function of TCF-1, the lab performed a two-hybrid screen and identified components of the Wnt signaling pathway as binding partners of TCF-1. “We started to read about Wnt and realized that you study Wnt not in T cells but in frogs and flies, so we rapidly transformed into a developmental biology lab. We showed that we held the key for a major issue in developmental biology, the final protein in the Wnt cascade: TCF-1 binds b-catenin when b-catenin becomes available and activates transcription.” In 1996, Clevers published the mechanism of how the TCF-1 homolog in Xenopus embryos, called XTcf-3, is integrated into the Wnt signaling pathway.
Against the grain. In 2007, Nick Barker, a senior scientist in the Clevers lab, identified the Wnt target gene Lgr5 as a unique marker of adult stem cells in several epithelial organs, including the intestine, hair follicle, and stomach. In the intestine, the gene codes for a plasma membrane protein on crypt stem cells that enable the intestinal epithelium to self-renew, but can also give rise to adenomas of the gut. Upon making mice with adult stem cell populations tagged with a fluorescent Lgr5-binding marker, the lab helped to overturn assumptions that “stem cells are rare, impossible to find, quiescent, and divide asymmetrically.”
On to organoids. Once the lab could identify adult stem cells within the crypts of the gut, postdoc Toshiro Sato discovered that a single stem cell, in the presence of Matrigel and just three growth factors, could generate a miniature crypt structure—what is now called an organoid. “Toshi is very Japanese and doesn’t always talk much,” says Clevers. “One day I had asked him, while he was at the microscope, if the gut stem cells were growing, and he said, ‘Yes.’ Then I looked under the microscope and saw the beautiful structures and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ and he said, ‘You didn’t ask.’ For three months he had been growing them!” The lab has since also grown mini-pancreases, -livers, -stomachs, and many other mini-organs.
Tumor Organoids. Clevers showed that organoids can be grown from diseased patients’ samples, a technique that could be used in the future to screen drugs. The lab is also building biobanks of organoids derived from tumor samples and adjacent normal tissue, which could be especially useful for monitoring responses to chemotherapies. “It’s a similar approach to getting a bacterium cultured to identify which antibiotic to take. The most basic goal is not to give a toxic chemotherapy to a patient who will not respond anyway,” says Clevers. “Tumor organoids grow slower than healthy organoids, which seems counterintuitive, but with cancer cells, often they try to divide and often things go wrong because they don’t have normal numbers of chromosomes and [have] lots of mutations. So, I am not yet convinced that this approach will work for every patient. Sometimes, the tumor organoids may just grow too slowly.”
Selective memory. “When I received the Breakthrough Prize in 2013, I invited everyone who has ever worked with me to Amsterdam, about 100 people, and the lab organized a symposium where many of the researchers gave an account of what they had done in the lab,” says Clevers. “In my experience, my lab has been a straight line from cloning TCF-1 to where we are now. But when you hear them talk it was ‘Hans told me to try this and stop this’ and ‘Half of our knockout mice were never published,’ and I realized that the lab is an endless list of failures,” Clevers recalls. “The one thing we did well is that we would start something and, as soon as it didn’t look very good, we would stop it and try something else. And the few times when we seemed to hit gold, I would regroup my entire lab. We just tried a lot of things, and the 10 percent of what worked, those are the things I remember.”
- Cloned the first T cell–specific transcription factor, TCF-1, and identified homologous genes in model organisms including the fruit fly, frog, and worm
- Found that transcriptional activation by the abundant β-catenin/TCF-4 [TCF7L2] complex drives cancer initiation in colon cells missing the tumor suppressor protein APC
- First to extend the role of Wnt signaling from developmental biology to adult stem cells by showing that the two Wnt pathway transcription factors, TCF-1 and TCF-4, are necessary for maintaining the stem cell compartments in the thymus and in the crypt structures of the small intestine, respectively
- Identified Lgr5 as an adult stem cell marker of many epithelial stem cells including those of the colon, small intestine, hair follicle, and stomach, and found that Lgr5-expressing crypt cells in the small intestine divide constantly and symmetrically, disproving the common belief that stem cell division is asymmetrical and uncommon
- Established a three-dimensional, stable model, the “organoid,” grown from adult stem cells, to study diseased patients’ tissues from the gut, stomach, liver, and prostate