SEP-OUT 2017  Dr. Michail Klontzas Q&A

 
What was your journey through science so far?
I am a graduate of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Crete in Greece. During my undergraduate studies I was lucky enough to participate in basic and clinical research projects related to haematology and musculoskeletal MRI. My exposure to haematological research under the supervision of Prof. H. Papadaki stimulated my interest in stem cells and translational medicine, whereas working on musculoskeletal imaging with Prof. A. Karantanas helped me discover my love for the musculoskeletal system. Therefore, after obtaining my medical degree, I decided to combine both interests and pursue a PhD in stem cells and musculoskeletal tissue engineering. Currently, I am lucky to be following my dream of conducting a PhD as a Marie Curie funded PhD student, under the supervision of Prof. Athanasios Mantalaris in the Biological Systems Engineering Lab of Imperial College.
 
What research do you do and what do you think the impact is?
My PhD research focuses on stem cell bioprocessing and specifically on the osteogenic differentiation of umbilical cord blood mesenchymal stem cells (UCB MSCs) for bone tissue engineering purposes. In my project, which involves both experimental and computational work, I study the metabolism of stem cells when differentiated towards the osteogenic lineage, in an attempt to optimize the production of artificial bone grafts. I feel extremely lucky that I work in a multidisciplinary lab which has managed to successfully integrate in vitro with in silicoexperimentation. This has given me the chance to utilise state-of-the-art experimental methods such as metabolomics and state-of-the-art mathematical modelling towards the development of engineered bone grafts. Due to the recent constant increase in cord blood banking, UCB MSCs have the potential of being used for the off-the-shelf production of artificial bone grafts with a great impact on the efficiency of treatments that require the use of bone grafts such as fracture fixation, bone tumour resection, revision joint arthroplasty etc. The process of manufacturing of such grafts should be well studied, optimized and tightly regulated in terms of quality in order to guarantee the best outcome for our patients. Towards this direction, our work has already shown that metabolism is an indicator of the degree of osteogenic differentiation and that culture protocols with differential osteogenic efficiency have different metabolic repercussions that could be used to assess the quality of UCB MSC differentiation. Moreover, being a member of SyMBioSys (an EU-funded consortium on modelling of biological systems - www.h2020symbiosys.eu) I have the chance to collaborate and exchange data and ideas with brilliant researchers from several countries that all work on projects meant to open new pathways on dynamic model development.
 
What are your next steps?
After finishing with my PhD, I will continue with my medical training to become an orthopaedic surgeon. In my future career I am planning to combine clinical practice with research for the benefit of patients.
 
What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab/science?
It is nearly impossible to identify one time that was most fun because I really enjoy every single moment in the lab. However, if I have to point out one specific event, I would say that it was when my first PhD paper was invited to make the cover of the scientific journal Stem Cells & Development which is something that would not have been achieved without the invaluable support of my colleagues and especially my supervisor Prof. Mantalaris.
 
What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it?
My attitude is that I always try to convert any disappointment into knowledge for future use. Any difficulty we face should make us wiser and this is the reason that I try to quickly forget any disappointment and move on, equipped with extra troubleshooting skills to overcome future problems.
 
Have you participated of any outreach or public engagement activities recently?
Our lab has participated in several public engagement activities over the years. The most important of them is Imperial Festival which is an excellent opportunity to show the public the amazing work that Imperial’s scientists do.

 

JUL-AUG 2017  Delfim Duarte Q&A

 

WHAT WAS YOUR JOURNEY THROUGH SCIENCE SO FAR?

I graduated in Medicine at the University of Porto in Portugal. As an undergrad, I studied angiogenesis and inflammation in Raquel Soares’ lab. During medical school I was selected for a summer placement in Tom Kirchhausen’s lab (Harvard Medical School) and there I used a single-molecule approach to study the GTPase dynamin during clathrin-mediated endocytosis. I then carried out a Master’s project on platelet and endothelial cell microparticles in asthma patients. As a consequence of these experiences I became very interested in cancer, vascular biology, cell-to-cell communication, and microscopy. I saw Haematology as a discipline where I could study these topics and have an impact as both a doctor and as a research scientist. After starting the specialty of Haematology in the Portuguese Institute of Oncology, in Porto, I was given the opportunity to pursue a PhD in basic/translational haematology. I was selected for the GABBA PhD program (gabba.up.pt) and joined Cristina Lo Celso’s lab at Imperial College in 2014. 

WHAT RESEARCH DO YOU DO AND WHAT DO YOU THINK THE IMPACT IS?
In my project I’m asking how leukaemia cells behave in vivo and how do they interact with the bone marrow microenvironment. This is relevant because the microenvironment, or niche, supports the maintenance of healthy blood cells that are lost in patients with leukaemia. Also, an open question in the field is whether the leukaemia itself depends or not on the niche to grow and survive. These questions are particularly important in acute leukaemias, which have very poor prognosis. Cristina, my supervisor, developed a method of intravital imaging of the mouse bone marrow to study the microenvironment. Using this technique, together with Edwin Hawkins, we were able to show that a type of T cell leukaemia does not depend on specific niches to grow and escape chemotherapy. An interesting observation was that the leukaemia is very motile and that its migration is dependent on specific molecular signals that can be targeted by new therapies. More recently I observed that another type of leukaemia, acute myeloid leukaemia, changes and eventually destroys the vascular microenvironment that is essential for the maintenance of healthy blood stem cells. 
 
WHAT ARE YOUR NEXT STEPS?
Next year I'm going back to Porto in Portugal to continue my clinical training in Haematology. I'll continue my research work in the affiliated institute i3S. i3S is a new research institute that brings together groups working on cell and molecular biology, cancer and bioengineering. I'll move to a group studying iron biology. Iron is an essential element for healthy haematopoiesis and it has a fine tuned systemic regulation. I'll be asking what is the relevance of iron in the microenvironment and how it affects stem cells, blood vessels and leukaemia. I'll approach this by using mouse models and imaging, together with patient samples.  
 
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST FUN OR INSPIRATIONAL TIME IN THE LAB/SCIENCE?
In my opinion, the best in science is that you can make a “discovery” any time, often unexpectedly. That’s truly inspirational and fun. As someone who loves imaging, I appreciate very much the power of microscopy to generate totally new observations that then obviate new questions you didn’t think of before. The whole process is exciting! There’s also the people. In science you have lots of diversity and meet people that are sort of outliers in society. It’s a special ecosystem that makes you think in a different way and learn more and more.
 
WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CAREER OR SCIENTIFIC DISAPPOINTMENT AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?
For me the biggest challenge has always been trying to assess how meaningful and relevant are the “eureka” moments or ideas I often have. I try to be disciplined with myself so that I can distinguish things worth pursuing from red herrings. I think it’s something every scientist relates with. I find that discussing with your peers is very helpful and that you improve as you get more experience. Sometimes it can be hard to dismiss something that in your head makes total sense. The challenge is to go through this process without losing creativity.
 
HAVE YOU PARTICIPATED OF ANY OUTREACH OR PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT ACTIVITIES RECENTLY?
I’ve participated in public outreach activities over the years. It's important for a scientist to learn how to communicate their science so I’ve tried to develop such communication skills. A good example of a project I’ve participated in and that promotes the scientific education of children is “Native Scientist”. The project exists in several countries, UK included, and I recommend all researchers to participate in it.

 

APR-JUN 2017  Dr. Gabor Foldes Q&A

 

What was your journey through science so far?

I graduated at Semmelweis University, Budapest in 1998, where four years later I also got my PhD. I trained in Medicine and then specialised in Internal Medicine and Cardiology ten years ago. So I am a medic by training but since my university years I have also been involved in research in various cardiovascular areas that interest me. In the middle of my Cardiology rotation back in 2006 I was awarded a fellowship by the Novartis Foundation and spent five months in Professor Ken Chien’s laboratory at Harvard. This was my first opportunity to get involved with stem cells. Our aim there was to grow multipotent islet-positive heart progenitors from mouse embryonic stem cells. When sometimes we went in the ‘wrong’ direction with the differentiation and found beating heart muscle cells under the microscope, everybody in the lab was so disappointed! Such a bad protocol, complained everybody. It has now been more than nine years since I started working with Professor Sian Harding at the National Heart and Lung Institute. Our group has also been focusing on the differentiation and characterisation of cardiovascular derivatives of human pluripotent stem cells. Our aim now is in fact the complete opposite: generating those beating cells, no matter what. The more beating, the better!

What research do you do and what do you think the impact is?

What I’m most interested in, probably because of my clinical background, is the translation of human pluripotent stem cells from heart disease models in a dish, to real cardiac repair. As well as driving various heart muscle cell projects, for some time I have also been leading new projects on stem cell-derived vascular cells. In 2010 I was also appointed as Associate Professor at my other institution, the Heart and Vascular Centre, Semmelweis University in Hungary.  That position allows me to leverage the specialist in vivo imaging expertise of my colleagues there. Being involved in this type of joint effort, and having that extra support, has been very helpful when trying to exploit such a complex technology.

What are your next steps?

My hope is that, by using these endothelial cell constructs, we’ll be able to generate something that resembles the native vessels. I think vascular scaffolds as a supporting microenvironment can be well used to support tissue repair or even replacement. When talking to my clinical colleagues, it often comes up that a new engineering design of a responsive, living conduit similar to a native vessel would be very much welcomed. Given the substantial clinical challenges of vascular disease, I think it is crucial to develop something which is suitable for application in tissue-engineered vessels and with favourable properties of strength, surface, anti-inflammation and long-term durability. I also see these ideas receiving a lot of support in-house and from many of our collaborators around Europe. All these collaborations would substantiate the potential of these cells in therapy and may even promote their further development as a first-in-man implantation.

 

What was your most fun or inspirational time in the lab/science?

Stem cell research generates a great deal of interest, and many people want to hear or talk about it. Everybody has questions for us, or just sharing some secret hopes that various diseases in their family could be cured with a bit of stem cell cocktail. Not surprisingly, I have received numerous invites and had the opportunity to present this work around the world. I am most proud of my stem cell image which was showcased in front of the London Eye, where a never-ending line of tourists tried to take selfies with it for days. I also have fond memories of the award for my high content imaging work being presented at the top of Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. These moments keep you going.

 What was your biggest career or scientific disappointment and how did you overcome it?

I fully agree with some recently published editorials in Nature and other journals that young scientists are facing a tougher and much more competitive workplace than many of our senior colleagues did at the same stages of their own careers. Unfortunately, we cannot underestimate the burden of grant preparations: a colossal amount of our time - measured at least in months - spent on each application. With suc­cess rates for most grants being very low recently, many times these ideas, even the ones we found particularly strong, are going down the sink. The bottom line is that even if we carry out exceptional science, we might still experience a bad combination of limited resources and increased pressure. While we’re aware that a stem cell project is rarely without any risk, it would be great to see bolder decisions and less risk aversion around grant decisions.

 Have you participated of any outreach or public engagement activities recently?

Over the years many high school students and young undergraduates visited our lab to look around; some even to spend a summer (one advantage of bad London weather) with us. Most of the time they are very switched on, and their short visits are often followed by further work in the lab. One of them even participated with success at various innovation contests for young scientists such as Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair last autumn.

THANK you!

 

JAN-MAR 2017  Dr. Paola Campagnolo Q&A

What was our journey through science so far?

I graduated in Biotechnology at the University of Padua (Italy) with an experimental thesis on gene and cell therapy in 2005, when this was a relatively new topic. I then moved to Bristol (UK) for my PhD, working on the isolation of a novel progenitor population from human saphenous vein leftovers from cardiac patients. This turned out to be a pretty interesting population of cells, able to promote vascularization of ischemic tissues both in peripheral limbs and infarcted hearts. Following this, I worked at King’s College London on the use of tissue engineering to prepare vascular grafts for coronary bypasses. In these projects I worked on the differentiation of stem cells to be seeded on decellularized blood vessels in a bioreactor to produce synthetic vessels resembling the natural structures. This experience encouraged me to decide to focus my research on the interaction between cells and biomaterials. I therefore joined Imperial College London, working in the Materials Department in the lab of Prof Stevens, one of the best labs in this field. At Imperial I collaborated with a number of very talented material scientists, as a result we devised a new synthetic material for vascular grafts and developed a nanomaterial-based system for in vivo gene therapy. More recently, I have been appointed as a lecturer at the University of Surrey, where I am working to establish my own research group.

What research you do and what do you think its impact?

My main research topic is the use of endogenous/adult stem cells for tissue engineering applications and in particular for the development of bypass/graft substitutes (large vessels). So far the cell population I have isolated during my PhD is approaching human clinical trial phase, thanks to my initial work and to the valuable contribution of so many other talented and determined people. My more recent work on tissue engineering and nanomaterial-based gene therapy is still under development, but I hope one day it will become clinically relevant.

What is the next step?

In September I started at the University of Surrey as a lecturer in Molecular Cardiovascular Biology. In my new appointment, alongside some teaching duties I will be setting up my research group (and lab). My research interests focus on the use of biomaterials and stem cells to produce a model of the vascular wall and the use of a bioreactor to mimic the pathophysiological conditions experienced by the vascular cells in vivo. The model will allow the study of cell-cell interactions and leukocyte extravasation in normal and pathological conditions. Establishing an in-vitro model of the vasculature enables the study of several diseases and their vascular complications, such as diabetes and viral infections.

What was your experience with co-organising the ISRMN network?

I really enjoyed co-organising the meetings of the ISRMN, it has given me the amazing opportunity to interact and network with many interesting and valuable colleagues by challenging my natural ackwardness. It has made me also more aware of the organisational hurdles and the amazing feeling of accomplishment that comes with putting together a successful meeting. Of course the interaction with Dina and Marta has been very constructive and taught me to value different approaches and inspired flexibility and passion for science.

What was your most fun and most inspirational time in the lab/ in science?

During my PhD, I used to spend a lot of time in the lab, almost never sitting at my desk (a luxury that I don’t have anymore) and my mood used to depend a lot on my results, although lately I have learned that your mental health depends on being more detached. I still remember the day I burst into my PhD supervisor’s office (yes, literally…he is a very understanding man) shouting: I have got some cells!!! They grow like embyroid bodies. And he said: No way! If it’s true we will call them ‘Paoloids’ (we are both called Paola/o). I think his support during my rather difficult PhD and his enthusiasm not only made me work super hard, but also showed me what real passion for science is.

What you will miss from Imperial College?

Imperial is a great institution with amazing resources and facilities that are surely unparalleled. But most of all I will miss the people I met here. I had the chance to work with great minds and this was at the same time humbling and encouraging.

Anything else?

Overall, I would say that is important for young scientists to learn that failure and patience are two inevitable facts of the scientific life. This is not to say it’s sad or not worth the effort; it is to say that everyone experiences the same setbacks as you and these difficulties are only stepping stones which will form your character and create the correct attitude to develop your career. I want to say this because many valuable scientists (and especially many women, including me) tend to feel alone in their path to success and give up thinking other people have it easy.