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Nadia Rosenthal

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Nadia Rosenthal

Nadia Rosenthal

Nadia Rosenthal is an outstanding figure in research on muscle and cardiology. Trained at Harvard, she has subsequently established in Boston a laboratory which now occupies one of the first places in the field of muscle molecular biology. She later managed the European Laboratory of Molecular Biology and joined at the same time a large cardiology center in London. In 2008, she founded a large research center in Australia: the Australian Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Regular recipient of prizes and distinctions, she was awarded the 2002 Ferrari-Soave Prize in Cell Biology from the University of Turin.

This honorary doctorate comes in recognition of an exceptional body of work and numerous contributions to stem cell research and regenerative biology. Which of your research achievements do you feel are most significant, and why?

Regenerative medicine is a relatively new but exploding field that broadly refers to the mechanisms whereby adult organisms restore form and function to damaged tissues and organs. We have made significant headway in our goal to find way to restore some of the regenerative ability of mammalian tissues, which happens naturally in embryos, but is lost shortly after birth. We have engineered mice to express specific factors that regenerate muscle, letting the mice recover fully from injuries, resist muscle disease and defy the aging process. This work suggests clinically relevant avenues for preventing disease-related muscle frailty, as in muscular dystrophy or heart failure and gives new insight into how stem cells can be mobilized across the body, and how they take on specialized functions in tissues. By improving on nature we hope to improve the way medicine is practiced.


What are your future research projects and goals?

I’ve always wanted to get back to developmental biology--to those patterns that had fascinated me as a child--and apply the genetic research tools I’ve learned in the meantime. Lower vertebrates can recapitulate development by regenerating whole limbs, fins and tails – even jaws and parts of their hearts if they are injured. In contrast, we can’t regenerate much more than a fingertip. All organisms have some fundamental capacity to regenerate, but in higher vertebrates, regeneration seems to be prevented by scar formation, or by inadequate stem cell pools, or by a lack of patterning in the replacement tissues of the repaired wound. I’d like to understand the processes of regeneration in different organisms well enough to be able to improve our own capacity to regenerate in cases of damage or disease.

In the future I plan to apply some of the principles we have learned in mice to the study of other, more regenerative organisms, such as the fish or salamander. We can make real headway now because the genetic blueprint of these animals is accessible through improved DNA sequencing techniques and more sophisticated gene manipulation. Ultimately, the specialized mechanisms in these organisms can tell us a lot about the impediments we face in regenerative medicine.


In addition to your research activities, you have headed research teams and institutes on three continents. In your opinion, what challenges for individual scientists, on the one hand, and research institutions, on the other, are generated by the current, truly globalized scientific arena?

I can best speak to this issue using the current revolution in mouse genetics as an example. Over the past ten years since I left the US, mouse genetics research has been transformed from a scattered list of individuals each working on a gene or set of genes, to a highly interactive, internationally funded consortium, who collectively have set long-term goals for achieving a comprehensive genetics-based view of mammalian physiology and pathology. The establishment of a systematic mouse functional genomics initiative could never have been accomplished by an individual scientist or institute, and is already having a major impact upon the identification of gene-based targets for the development of novel therapeutics. The collective approach is also for the individual scientist, who now can order up a knockout mouse at a fraction of the cost and time it used to take to produce one herself. 

These advances have important ramifications for future funding schemes. European scientists have been in the vanguard of mammalian genomic research through their development of mouse-based tools, and are now positioned to lead biomedical research into the next decade, perhaps because of our more highly developed collaborative skills, but we cannot do it alone. The next steps must now be considered together as a research community within Europe and abroad. A concerted approach to capitalize wisely on the European investment already made in this area is clearly the most rapid and cost-effective way to crack the big questions in human disease.



How do you feel the situation for women in the field of scientific research has evolved over the space of your career so far? Are proactive measures for the promotion of scientific education and careers for girls and young women still necessary?

As scientists, we are all bitten by the same bug of universal curiosity and have the same dread of personal failure, but women have the additional burden of discrimination. As the feminist Gloria Steinem recently said, anyone who thinks that today’s society is comfortable with women in power needs glasses. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are generally comfortable with the abstract notion that a woman is equally entitled to satisfy her scientific curiosity.  Female life scientists abound in academic institutions, at least until the positions and money and space become limited (usually at the Associate Professorship level), then the attrition rate is embarrassingly high. And it’s not just about children. There are plenty of childless women on the drop-out list, and those who have attained positions of power in their profession are just as likely to have children as not.

There are a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle ways to discourage a young researcher, to distract her from the joys of discovery and dissuade her from demanding more space or more support when she clearly needs and deserves it. It’s also important to identify our own impediments. We are not all well enough equipped to deal with competition – for positions, promotions or papers – and competition is a constant in research. Above all, we need to recognize the power imparted by external research funding and ask for enough of it.


How then, do we promote a sense of entitlement amongst women in science?

It’s a multifaceted problem that requires much more attention than it has received. Any strategies we develop or employ to survive and flourish must begin with seizing the moment as it unfolds and using it to our best advantage. Patience is not the virtue I would espouse here, but rather a stubborn intolerance of personal compromise when it comes to the ideas in your head. It takes clever strategizing to keep doing what interests you, in the face of shifting fashions and inconsistent funding. But the centerpiece has to be a personal passion for science.



Tell us about your collaboration with Gillian Butler-Browne.

Gillian and I share an interest in the phenomenon of muscle weakness and atrophy. She studies the problem from a cell biological standpoint, using cell cultures from both human and mouse resources, whereas I have pursued a more genetic route, developing mouse models of atrophy or increased muscle strength by manipulating specific gene pathways. Our approaches are complementary and surprisingly synergistic. It’s always a pleasure to meet and exchange data and ideas.



What does this honorary degree represent for you? Is there scope for scientific collaboration with UPMC in the future?

This degree represents recognition by my fellow scientists, which is the highest honor one can receive in research. As for collaborations, they arise between people rather than with institutions.  I am very excited about the prospect of learning more about researchers at UPMC, and forging connections to my own work and that of my colleagues at EMBL through the opportunities for interaction that may arise through this distinction.