Let’s Keep in Touch: Strong Cell-cell Contacts for Healthy Lungs


Irene Heijink
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen


Prof Irene Heijink (1975) and her team study the mechanisms underlying lung tissue damage in various lung diseases, such as asthma, COPD and pulmonary fibrosis She does this in close collaboration with the clinic, using culture models with cells derived from patients. Heijink directs the Experimental Lung Diseases Lab (EXPIRE) and is currently programme leader of the Groningen Research Institute for COPD (GRIAC), a multidisciplinary and translational research institute in which close collaboration takes place between basic and clinical scientists.

Lung diseases are a major social problem. Diseases such as asthma and COPD are common and have a major impact on quality of life. In fact, COPD is currently the third box cause worldwide. Lung diseases are often only detected at a late stage when there is already significant damage that is no longer treatable. In particular, damage to the lining layer of the airways and lungs (the epithelium - involved in immune processes) with loss of mutual contact between cells in this layer is currently seen as a crucial part of disease processes. Irene Heijink discovered that an important directing role is played by the damaged epithelium in the derailed inflammatory response in the lungs of asthma and COPD patients. In her Chair in Cellular and Molecular Lung Pathology, Heijink aims to develop new strategies to repair the epithelial barrier in lung diseases and thereby stop or even reverse the disease process. In doing so, she uses advanced culture models (such as lab-on-chip), which she is developing within a large national collaboration to detect lung damage earlier and find new leads for treatment. She is also developing a new strategy in collaboration with the University of Twente, using an innovative technology, to better treat damage deep in the lungs and possibly even achieve tissue repair.


Design and layout: LINE UP boek en media bv | Riëtte van Zwol, Mirjam Kroondijk
Cover photo/illustration: Nienke Heijink
Author photo: Ilse Eichhorn
Illustrations: Created with Biorender.com

Published by University of Groningen Press
Broerstraat 4
9712 CP Groningen

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Author Biography

Irene Heijink, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

Irene Heijink (1975) was trained as Medical Biologist and obtained her PhD at the Faculty of Medicine in  2004. She is fascinated by the mechanisms underlying aberrant damage and repair of the first line of defense against the inhaled environment, the respiratory epithelium. She leads the Experimental  Pulmonary and Inflammation research (EXPIRE) lab, and since 2022 she is program leader of the  multidisciplinary and translational Groningen Research Institute for COPD (GRIAC). Irene Heijink is currently also head of the European Respiratory Society (ERS) Assembly Basic and Translational Sciences. She and her team study the role of the lung epithelium in the pathogenesis of lung diseases as asthma and COPD, using advanced patient-specific culture models. In her chair as professor of Cellular and  Molecular Lung Pathology, she aims to develop new strategies to repair the epithelial barrier in lung  diseases and thus halt or even reverse disease.

cover page inaugural lecture Irene Heijink



October 6, 2023


Faculteit Medische Wetenschappen, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Oratie, Inaugurele Rede, Inaugural Lecture, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, University of Groningen, Irene Heijink