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Researcher profile: Christer Betsholtz

Leading blood-vessel researcher’s discovery redraws the map

It did not take Christer Betsholtz long to stun the research community the first time. Almost four decades later, his work is still moving the boundaries of vascular biology. But a reputation as a leading figure can have its drawbacks.

There are academic honours, and there are Academic Honours – some with capital letters so big that they give lustre to the recipient’s entire seat of learning. At Uppsala University’s Rudbeck Laboratory, visitors are welcomed by a handsome showcase. Its glass wall displays the 2017 Anders Jahre Award for Medical Research, a Norwegian award that honoured Christer Betsholtz, Professor of Vascular and Tumour Biology, for his ground-breaking research on blood vessel formation and function.

“Of course, it’s wonderful that my work’s been recognised so much that people in another country choose to highlight it with such a fine prize. At the same time, the epithet ‘leading researcher’, as I’m sometimes called, can be a pain – when one is invited to speak at scientific conferences, for instance, if I’m always expected to share exciting discoveries. To be honest that’s something we researchers rarely have. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a situation most people can identify with.”

Well, it’s doubtful how often the average worker is expected to astound the world. However, at least Betsholtz has several colleagues in the Uppsala Science Park corridors to share any performance anxiety with. Lena Claesson-Welsh, Cancer Researcher of the Year 2017, works a few rooms away, and next door is Taija Mäkinen, an internationally leading expert on lymphatic vessels. On the floor below, we find Elisabetta Dejana, one of Uppsala University’s most prestigious recruits in modern times; and the rising Polish star Kaska Koltowska joined recently.

“In 2012, I came to Uppsala University to start building a leading environment in vascular biology with Lena Claesson-Welsh. Six years later, we’re composed of various groups whose research attracts international attention. Above all we’re a grouping in which the sum is larger than its individual parts. It’s an unusual concentration of talent, with self-reinforcing attractiveness, which in my view is confirmed by the fact that Kaska Koltowska chose us. She’s a young researcher who would be welcomed by many universities around the world.”

Betsholtz’s own scientific career path began when, while studying medicine in Uppsala, he was given the opportunity to try out research. After initially studying growth factors, cancer and developmental biology, he chose to focus the microscope on the development and role of blood vessels in tissues. An early experiment provided the unexpected result that pericytes, a type of cell on the outside of blood vessels, play a central role in the vessels’ various functions. For the scientific community that had so far focused on the inner surface of blood vessels, Betsholtz’s discovery paved the way for a breakthrough that still keeps laboratories busy all over the world.

“One answered question often leads to ten new ones, and since I like to delve deeply into things, I initially tended to take on an unmanageable number of questions. Over time, I had to develop a feel for what’s worth doing, and above all, what I have to eliminate to remain focused. These days, out of necessity, I recruit independent team members who are able to create and run their own projects, where my role is mainly to be a sounding board, judge the significance of the results and help the team uncover any grains of gold beyond the hypotheses.”

The research group has grown in step with its scientific successes. Today, the team is equivalent to a small company and combines a carefully balanced mixture of nationalities and skills. The guiding principle is high tolerance for differences in ways of working and thinking. According to Betsholtz, this is not always a comfortable norm, but it generates all the more creativity. Evidence for this is the nearly 400 scientific papers the laboratory has soon produced. Just days before our meeting, the prestigious journal Nature published the article “A molecular atlas of cell types and zonation in the brain vasculature”, containing the group’s latest results.

“The feeling of seeing your work in Nature is hard to beat. In this specific case, we’ve created a molecular map of the brain’s blood-vessel cells, using new technology. The level of detail is enormous, and although rapid technological development will soon enable new maps, we’ve now received up to 100 times more information and an almost inexhaustible source for new hypotheses. And it’s curiosity, in particular, and the will to understand that drive me forward to contribute new knowledge for a greater conceptual grasp of vascular and growth-factor biology, which in turn can result in ideas about new treatments for cancer and for diseases of the heart, brain and kidney.”

The above-mentioned curiosity was also a driving force when, in 2016, Betsholtz agreed to shoulder the leadership of the Integrated Cardio Metabolic Centre (ICMC), the AstraZeneca and Karolinska Institutet joint research centre set up for the purpose of creating new drug candidates for cardiovascular, diabetes and chronic renal diseases. The fact that the assignment made further claims on a well-filled schedule was outweighed by the attraction of learning more about the pharmaceutical industry.

“Academia and business are separate worlds to far too large an extent, and initiatives like ICMC enable interesting cross-fertilisation. It certainly is a costly experiment, requiring generous core funding. But we’re now seeing several exciting results, our publication in Nature being one of several examples. In fact, the connection between ICMC and my team in Uppsala has added yet another dimension to my work. Now that, after changing research environments every decade, I’m starting to sense that I’ve achieved my final professional objective, it feels like a tremendously interesting place to meet the future!”

Magnus Alsne
2018-06-14

Facts: Christer Betsholtz

Title: Professor of Vascular and Tumour Biology.
Age: 58 years.
Home: Västra Frölunda, Gothenburg.
Family: Wife and two children.
On the bedside table: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, about how trees communicate, remember and care for their progeny.
The latest compliment: I gave it this morning after a presentation of a very good master’s dissertation.
Admires: Anyone who dares to challenge wrongs and injustices despite it involving personal risk taking.
If I get a day off: I work in the garden – a mixture of interest and meditation.