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.
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.
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.