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Interview with Prof. Bart Vanhaesebroeck

Date: 
17 March 2017

 

After completing his PhD research at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Ghent University, Bart Vanhaesebroeck crossed the Channel for postdoctoral studies at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in London. He became professor in London, initially at UCL, then moved to Barts Cancer Institute (Queen Mary University of London) and later joined the Cancer Institute at UCL. Professor Vanhaesebroeck is an elected member of EMBO (EU Excellence in Life Sciences) and the UK Academy of Medical Sciences. He was instrumental in the discovery of a new drug for the treatment of cancer.

 
Bart Vanhaesebroeck

 

How would you describe your field of research to a layman?

I study cancer cells. These are like normal cells but they are out of control. I am trying to find out what the ‘Tube map’ of cancer cells looks like. Normally the traffic is all well- controlled and you know when you board the tube where you will end up. With cancer cells, many stations have become rather chaotic and I am trying to establish how to repair some of these key stations, by developing a drug against the molecules that have gone wrong in cancer cells. We are looking at how the wiring in cancer cells is deregulated and then develop drugs to repair these abnormalities.

 

What type of cancer are you specialised in?

Some 20 years ago, I stumbled across molecules that are active in many different types of cancer such as leukemia, breast cancer, etc. Consequently, I am not specialised in a specific cancer and our findings and the drugs we develop are applicable to various types of cancer. I am involved in fundamental research but I am always looking to find practical applications of our investigations, I am fascinated by the utilitarian touch. This approach is instigated by my training in Ghent under the famous molecular biologist Baron Walter Fiers. He came from the brewing industry where you use bacteria and yeast in the production process. His dream was to produce medicines in these organisms. Human genes of relevance to disease were isolated, put in bacteria and yeast, which allowed to for example produce insulin and anti-cancer agents. It was an amazing era because within a very short period of time, patients were actually treated with those products.

 

What’s the attraction of working as an academic in the UK?

The main attraction is the open and welcoming landscape. When I arrived in London, there were also more funds available than in Belgium at the time. I applied for various grants and quickly managed to set up my own team. It was very clear that it was good ideas and promise that mattered and not so much who you know and where you’re from. The other attraction, and I am now talking about London, is that it is very international. On average, I have around 15 people in the lab of whom only 1 or 2 are British. London also acts as a kind of pit-stop for scientists on their way to various places in the world, this creates ample opportunities for face-to-face contacts with these people en route.

 

Cuts in budgets have meant that universities need to attract sponsorship and organise various forms of fundraising. How does University College deal with this and your research in particular?

It is a big challenge. Government funding for universities has decreased over the years, and universities are asked to become more self-funding, which to some extent explains why the student fee structure has been introduced. But fees don’t cover all the costs. Universities, including UCL, are increasingly looking to attract philanthropic sponsorship. UCL has recently launched a fundraising campaign to present themselves to the wider world, with our Provost travelling to various countries to attract funding. They are looking at the Bill Gateses of this world for sponsorship. A recently opened Institute for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at UCL for instance, has been sponsored by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. UCL has a fantastic reputation and that is attractive for people to attach their name to. These funds won’t allow UCL to balance their books but they help achieving goals and make investments that can offer a long-term return.

 
Cancer Institute

 

If there were more funds available in your field of research, what would you spend the money on?

I have identified some opportunities for drug development in other diseases than cancer, for example to stimulate recovery after heart attack or stroke, ideas in neurodegeneration… what you call interdisciplinary science. But it is not always straightforward to find funding for these ideas because I am not a specialist in those fields, and it would be helpful to facilitate studies in these areas with my clinical and pharma colleagues.

 

What effect will Brexit have on your research?

European funding for science is very important for the UK. We are reasonably confident that Theresa May’s government will come up with a compensating budget although at the moment I am not entirely clear where that money might go. I am always slightly worried when politicians rather than scientists may decide where to put investment in science and research.

 

There have been reports of a considerable drop in EU students’ applications to UK universities following the referendum last June. Is this trend also noticeable at University College?

I am not sure since my job largely focuses on research and not on teaching. In my own laboratory, I have seen a drop in research applicants from Europeans. My lab has always enjoyed an influx of talented people from the Continent, many of whom bring their own funding. It would be a shame if this were to dry up. In the future, I may have to first offer available jobs to a Brit before I can offer the post to a national from another country. Maybe more Americans and Australians rather than EU nationals will come over under a Commonwealth umbrella to carry out research here.

 

You come from a small town in Belgium. How does it compare with living in London?

I come from Grammene, a very small village with 600 inhabitants. From there I moved to Deinze, then to Ghent and after that London. When I arrived here, I wanted to be near the countryside so we moved to North London. Over time, I have adapted to city life and I am happy to be here now. I have started to appreciate the benefits of a big city.

 

Do you have contact with other Belgians in London?

Not that much. I have two famous Belgian colleagues nearby, Peter Piot who heads the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Bart De Strooper who heads the UK Dementia Research Institute from UCL. We should meet more for an occasional chat!

 

Have you still got strong ties with Belgium on both a personal and professional level?

On a personal level, after 20 years, it is gradually reducing. I keep in contact with close friends and family of course. Scientifically, since the Brexit vote, my Belgian contacts have become more intense. I now probably pay more attention to the scientific landscape in Belgium. There is world-class science and research in Belgium. However, unlike often in the Anglo-Saxon world, Belgians don’t tend to boast about their competences and skills. They should be more proud of their achievements. I’ve always found that in the UK, if you’re successful, people tend to advertise themselves better as success breeds success. People want to work even more with successful people, there is a kind of positive jealousy so to speak, which is maybe less the case on the Continent. The scientific landscape in Belgium has definitely become far more international and I very much welcome that.

 

What are the most interesting/funny things you have heard about Belgians/Belgium? 

When I invite Belgian seminar speakers, the university wants to make sure they are good. I always get asked for the name of one famous Belgian but I can mention many. Many don’t really know Belgium and find it difficult to grasp its linguistic and political structure. I often refer to places like the Basque country or Northern Ireland and point out that in Belgium nobody has ever been killed over linguistic or political issues, that we are very civilised people! Our health care and education are of a very high standard and affordable. I believe that if they were more familiar with our country, they would appreciate it and may wish to stay rather than just visit or ignore it.

 

Do you have time for hobbies?

I dedicate one day a week to my biggest hobby which is exploring London’s culture. After 20 years, my wife and I are still tourists in this city. We always find new places. We tend to visit art galleries and then explore the surrounding area. The other 6 days, I thoroughly enjoy working. My hobby has become my job. We continue to make new discoveries which is intellectually extremely stimulating, and I also enjoy training the scientists of the future.

 

What are your future aspirations?

Some years ago, I managed to come up with the foundations to develop a drug treating leukemia. I was involved in all the stages that led to the production of the medicine. This drug is now used to treat patients, even here in the Institute, and for some it provides a cure which is immensely exciting. We recently discovered that this drug can also be used to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer, which fits in with the latest trend in cancer research and treatment. I would love to contribute in this field. My dream is to invent another drug to cure disease and I am actually involved in something along these lines, but it is at a very early stage. Hopefully I will have time to deliver on this during the rest of my career. Developing medicines takes a very long time unfortunately!  It will undoubtedly require a close cooperation between basic research, drug development and clinical studies.

 

Click here for a recent interview broadcast by the VRT.