Anouk Verhoeven is an ONTOX PhD Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Anouk enjoys the challenges that come with being a young researcher, confronted with questions where the answers require critical and problem-solving thinking. Learn more about Anouk in the ONTOX #YoungScientist interview.
Anouk, you have recently won the Best Poster Award at the ASPIS Open Symposium 2023. Your endeavour can help to identify data and knowledge gaps, advancing predictive non-animal approaches for modern human risk assessment. How do you feel about such achievement?
I am very grateful to everyone who voted for my poster, “An updated adverse outcome pathway network on chemical-induced liver steatosis”. This confirms that the presented work is of interest to other scientists and can be valuable in other studies focusing on non-animal approaches. This award motivates me to continue my research, aiming to advance non-animal approaches for Next Generation Risk Assessment.
Why did you decide to study in vitro toxicology at the Department of Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences (IVTD) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel?
The IVTD team has a big expertise in, among other things, the development of human-relevant in vitro models for the prediction of drug-induced liver injury. This expertise is of crucial importance in the development of animal-free methods for toxicity testing purposes in line with the 21st century toxicity testing and Next Generation Risk Assessment. Since my interest lies within this field, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this team.
What do you do as a scientist?
I have obtained a Master of Science in Drug Development at the KU Leuven. During my academic internship at the Department of Drug Delivery and Disposition at KU Leuven, I gained insight into the mechanisms underlying drug-induced liver toxicity. During my PhD at the VUB within IVTD, I’m focusing on the development of a human-based in vitro test battery for the prediction of chemical-induced liver steatosis.
What drove your passion for becoming a scientist?
While studying Pharmaceutical Sciences, my interest in toxicology grew. My curiosity about the underlying mechanisms of drug-induced toxicity and the non-animal methods used to study these mechanisms led me to start a PhD in that field. I like the challenge that comes with a PhD of being confronted with questions where the answers require critical and problem-solving thinking.
“I expect that ONTOX will have a profound impact on Next Generation Risk Assessment. Moreover, I believe that ONTOX will contribute to the regulatory acceptance of New Approach Methodologies used in human risk assessment.”
Can you describe what motivates you to participate in the ONTOX project?
ONTOX intends to develop animal-free methods for toxicity testing in line with the principles of the 21st century toxicity testing and Next Generation Risk Assessment. I believe that ONTOX will advance human risk assessment. My biggest motivation is being part of an international team consisting of diverse experts who work together towards the same goal.
In ONTOX, you are part of the Work Package 7 (WP7). What are your duties within this group?
WP7 is responsible for establishing two mechanistically anchored in vitro test batteries to assess the liver cholestatic and steatotic potential of chemical compounds. I am involved in the development of an in vitro test battery for liver steatosis. Within the scope of the first task of WP7, we have updated the adverse outcome pathway (AOP) network on chemical-induced liver steatosis and assessed it according to OECD criteria. Currently, we are working on the in vitro test battery to assess the steatotic potential of chemicals.
Do you have any concrete expectations from ONTOX and what it will deliver?
I expect that ONTOX will have a profound impact on Next Generation Risk Assessment. Moreover, I believe that ONTOX will contribute to the regulatory acceptance of New Approach Methodologies used in human risk assessment.
Have you achieved something in your career of which you are particularly proud?
I am grateful that since the start of my PhD project two years ago, I got to present my work at the international congresses ESTIV 2022 and EUROTOX 2023. Being awarded the “Best Poster Award” at the ASPIS Open Symposium 2023 is the highlight of my career so far. I am very excited that my first paper will soon be published, which focuses on assessing the confidence in an optimised adverse outcome pathway network for chemical-induced liver steatosis employing an artificial intelligence-assisted strategy.
Do you perceive any hurdles in being a young scientist?
Working on a PhD project is a challenge, which was one of my main motivations for starting a PhD. However, you often face setbacks such as failed experiments. At that point, it is a challenge to critically reflect on what happened and start over with a different strategy. Most importantly, you should not consider such setbacks a personal failure.
What are your future research plans?
I hope to complete my PhD project successfully. After that, I would like to continue working in the field of toxicology and, more specifically, advancing non-animal approaches for chemical safety assessments.
Who is your biggest inspiration – either in science or in general?
That’s a hard question, as I do not have a specific person in mind. In general, people who follow their passion and keep working towards their goal, regardless of all the setbacks that come with it, are an inspiration for me.
Besides making the world a better place with your work, do you have other hobbies?
I enjoy listening to music. Not a minute goes without having some music on. Most of all, I enjoy moments with friends, some good music, food and drinks.