8 August, 2018
One of the world’s leading molecular biologists and his team have come close to curing one of the worst diseases of modern days – lung cancer
A scientist, inventor and a professor at the Department of Biochemistry Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, Igor Štagljar is one of the leading molecular biologists in the world and he and his team have come close to curing one of the worst diseases of today – lung cancer. They have developed a so-called smart drug that selectively destroys tumour cells, while leaving healthy ones intact, which is the crown of his scientific career. In addition, Mr Štagljar is currently involved in the commercialisation of MaMTH technology, opening the way for new treatments of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. With his powerful energy and style and above all, creative knowledge, he identifies the secrets of science to make life easier for humankind.
What is the world of scientists really like?
It’s a world where you learn something new every day! In my case, exploring the molecular basis of several human diseases, the key role was played by the human genome project, which was completed in 2001, when scientists figured out, or ‘read’, the genetic information within our cells. Since then, we have known that the number of genes in our body is about 20,000. Each of these genes play a role in the proper function of trillions of our cells, but the function of only a small part of them is known – about 5,000 genes and as far as the rest is concerned – some 15,000 – we have no idea what their function in cells is and how diseases occur when these genes mutate. The mystery that scientists around the world are trying to figure out is the function of each gene, so that one day, given this knowledge, we can cure a certain disease. Understanding what is happening at a molecular level in tumour cells and how these processes differ from normal cells – that’s what I’m really interested in. To put it simply, my group studies cell surface proteins, so-called receptors, which order to the cell to when divide, when to proliferate and when to die. These receptors, due to genetic mutations responsible for their production or amplification of the gene encoding them, simply go wild in tumour cells. Leading to said tumour cells dividing without control. What we are trying to understand is how to stop ‘out of control’ receptors by ‘precision medicines’, so that the cell is no longer in that uncontrollable mode, where it is dividing non-stop. Although scientists have been studying these receptors for nearly 30 years, it was only 12 years ago that enormous advances in this field of research resulted in the synthesis of the first ‘precision medicines’ in the treatment of leukemia, kidney, colon and lung cancer. I can freely say that scientists are just beginning to figure out what we don’t know.
How did cooperation with MedILS and prof. Miro Radman occur?
Miro Radman is a good friend of mine and I see him as a second father. When I started studying, Miro was in the zenith of his career, he had published all of his most important works and I was simply thrilled every time he held a lecture, which I had heard for the first time in Zagreb and then in Zürich where I was doing my PhD at ETH. During one of his business visits to Zürich, I had the opportunity to welcome him in my home so we became closer friends. I was fascinated by his spontaneity, goodwill and vision. That was when I found out that such a well-known scientist could be so playful and that he was actually a big child (laughs). For that matter, my wife Renata often tells me that I am a big child who has never grown up. And right then, during our first social gathering, we clicked after ten minutes. In the years following our first meeting, we attended a number of conferences all over the world together. And so, a year ago he invited me to Split to set up my scientific group here at MedILS. I thought – why not. I have come to the conclusion that the conditions are good here and that good science can work in Croatia. Although I was born in Zagreb, I adore Split and getting my University of Toronto permit means that I can spend two to three months a year here and enjoy working and living in this phenomenal town. It was a beautiful gesture on my university’s part, because it is obvious that they want MedILS to succeed too. MedILS can only succeed if we concentrate the best Croatian scientists here, who will attract funding both from Croatian and the EU funds, as well as private funding so that they can try to publish interesting studies that will lead to patents and top discoveries one day.
What do you think about the curricular reform?
I’ve been angry for the past four years, listening to stories about the curricular reform that should have been modified a long time ago. I don’t agree that everything about our education system is bad. It’s not bad, it’s outdated and this system just needs to be updated as soon as possible. In modern Scandinavian countries, the system changes every year because the professors who teach are keen to upgrade the system and make it better. Here, however, there is a conflict of different political views: the left, the right, the clergy – and those who suffer most are our children and the economy, which is very bad for the prosperity of our country. People with no knowledge are the easiest to manipulate and if you do not offer knowledge to society as a whole, their ‘fragile knowledge’ will result in a very small level of critical thinking within the society. So, these people will be much easier to manipulate. Those in power, along with the clergy, are lagging behind and it is high time for something to be achieved in the field of education and the implementation of high technology (so-called STEM revolution) because otherwise our children will not be competitive in the global market. Technology is developing and changing very fast in the western market, so time will outrun us if we do not change something. Actually, I’m afraid that time has already outrun us, because we are extremely ineffective in implementing reforms in all spheres of our society. Things are very simple: politicians in power need to come up with the courage to change things for the better!
What would you change?
I would not invent hot water. We know exactly which education programs are in demand in the most developed countries of the world such as Finland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, Denmark, Canada, Japan… I would copy their curriculum and modify it slightly to match our mentality and tradition. Traditionally, we are a pretty conservative country and I would certainly take this fact into consideration. I would not take all of the left, avant-garde methods, but simply adapt them to our society.
How do you recognise a good young scientist?
I recognise them in the first five minutes of an interview. I solely seek people who are happy and full of joy, who enjoy life and who are not nerds who think only of science. I want those who think outside of the box and those who will be able to keep up with a scientific problem and will not stumble when faced with the first obstacle… I just want winners and, luckily, I can quickly spot them.
Is your lab a fun place?
I’m in the lab every day and it is definitely a place where all the members of my lab and I have fun. However, I have to tell you honestly that I have started noticing, now that I’m older, that students are scared and turn silent when I enter the lab. I immediately say, ‘Why have you stopped talking?’ Laugh, start talking about music, art, sports, the weather… and then everything goes the way that it should – relaxed, good vibrations are created between us. Simply put, I take time to make sure I create a positive atmosphere, both intellectually and in our daily routine.
Arsen Dedić described himself as an academic labourer. How would you describe yourself?
This is a very good metaphor – I might describe myself as a scientific labourer. My job is to write projects (grants) and my laboratory will use the funding we get from those projects in research. If I’m unsuccessful in that, there will be no money and you will not be able to do experiments, i.e. do research. My group’s budget is currently around $ 1.6 million a year, which is a lot of money. For that reason, you can see that we are ‘scientific labourers’ in a way, but I love to do this job and it’s not hard for me to spend 80% of my time writing scientific projects. I’m surrounded by young people who help and who work with me as a team. I have always remarked that success in science is the success of the entire team! Today you can no longer be a successful scientist if you are a loner. Instead, only if you integrate smart and hard-working people into your team that will be able to turn your ideas into successful experiments. Accordingly, the success of a professor or a scientific labourer, is the success of a few dozen or at least a few scientists who work together in a scientific-labouring team.
Is the lung cancer medicine ready?
Yes, it is ready. Our work describing this drug is still in a review in a reputable scientific journal and I cannot tell you too much at this point. It would not be fair because we have not yet published the results. I can only tell you that clinical research will be done in Toronto, at the Princess Margaret Centre for Tumor Research facility and at the Jordanovac Psychiatric Clinic run by professor Miroslav Samaržija.
Healthy lifestyle – is that the answer as to how can tumours be avoided?
It definitely is! If we want to stay healthy and age well, we have to adhere to important rules. I hear people talking ‘why should I be careful when our health is written in our genes’. These people are somewhat right because our health, as well as many other features, is the product of our genes. However, people forget that we are also the product of the environment that surrounds us. Our health is greatly affected by ‘exposure’. This includes all the substances we are exposed to on a daily basis: food, drink, the air we breathe, various forms of radiation that we are exposed to. People are dumbfounded when I tell them that very few cancers (just 7%) are caused by genetic mutations. Much more common causes, between 30 and 35 percent, are caused by poor diet and the main cause is smoking, obesity and alcohol. I know that this sounds strange, but as much as 40% of tumours can be avoided by leading a healthier life, something that people ignore because it is very difficult today, especially in modern western countries to stick to a healthy lifestyle. Most people are under great stress, work hard, have to meet social standards, don’t exercise enough and eat fast food that is full of various poisons. Furthermore, their drinking habits are even worse – 1/3 of their daily calories intake comes from drinks! This is very unhealthy and therefore very troublesome! I would like to mention that here in Croatia people have a great advantage because you can go to the fresh market and the fish market and buy natural vegetables, fruits and fish from the surrounding villages and our clear sea. In Toronto, you can only find it on Saturdays from May to October, here in Croatia it is available every day. And that is why I am very happy when I come to Split or home to Zagreb, where my mother gives me homemade bacon from my neighbours or homemade cheese and cream, which is a culinary thrill for me. You can also eat healthily in Toronto, but you will have to pay for it because you can buy such foods only at specialised stores.
Politics and science…
These are two unavoidable things, especially here in Croatia and I can say freely, in all of Europe. They are closely related, because in every country there are a number of high-quality scientists (for example, in Croatia there are 30-40) who are so reputable that, if they wanted to, they could find a job in any country in the west. In order to have a healthy scientific climate in Croatia, the power to create the program in Croatian science should only be given to these excellent scientists. In other words, there is no meritocracy in science. Only extraordinary scientists will know how best to create a new course in science, to be the driver of our society. In Canada you have five hundred outstanding scholars (out of 33 million people) who are actually involved in creating Canadian science policy. My opinion is that money for science in every country should only be given to the absolute best scientists as it is a great deal of money coming from taxpayers. In order to justify spending public money, you have to give it to the best people; otherwise it is not fair to taxpayers, so it makes no sense to spend money irrationally in science. These projects are where we will get top-quality scientists from one day.
They say you are the most stylish scientist …
Ha ha, yes! American fashion magazine ‘Future-ish’ has honoured me with the title for the fourth year in a row. It’s not a scientific prize, but I can say that I enjoy the title because I’ve always loved to dress well. However, the title doesn’t play any role in my scientific work, so I will not get more money for projects thanks to it or publish better scientific papers.
What is the difference between modern biomedical science and traditional medicine?
Traditional medicine can no longer make progress without major advances in molecular genetics and biochemistry. To be able to cure a certain illness you need to know what causes it. Say you have a tumour that can be removed with an operative procedure, to be sure that your body is completely cleansed of the tumour, the patient needs to undergo chemotherapy following surgery to ensure that there are no tumour cells left in the body that could develop into another tumour in the future. To create effective tumour remedies, you need to know exactly which biochemical, metabolic and genetic changes lead to a tumour’s development. When you break the tumour down into it’s constituents and you know what each molecule is doing within the tumour, only then will you be able to know which pathogens of these tumours (molecules) you need to destroy with the drug or how you can treat the patient. Today’s medicine cannot function without it.
Do you enjoy spending time here in Split?
I absolutely love spending time in this beautiful city of yours. In addition to Dubrovnik and Zagreb, Split is my favourite city in Croatia. Yesterday evening I stopped by Vestibul, sat on Peristil and listened, fascinated, to an artist playing his guitar, it was magnificent. Then I walked along the Riva, climbed on the first belvedere at Marjan, enjoyed the spectacular view over the city and the islands, and then got back to MedILS at the foot of Bambina glavica at Marjan, full of impressions, energy and emotions. I also have to mention that the women of Split are the most gorgeous women in south-eastern Europe, so this truly is a city where you can enjoy yourself.
Photos by Zlatko Sunko