Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher profile: Lena Claesson-Welsh

At sixty years of age, Lena Claesson-Welsh is well on her way to redrawing the map for cancer care with her research on the role of blood vessels in tumours. PHOTO: MIKAEL WALLERSTEDT

Cancer researcher in the limelight

As Cancer Researcher of the Year, Lena Claesson-Welsh rather reluctantly watched herself become the cover lady for Swedish research. It is probably useful training, though, considering that her laboratory contains findings that could give her far greater exposure still.

“It’s a remarkable experience to be stopped on the street by strangers who recognize me,” says Claesson-Welsh. “Everyone is nice and congratulates me, but sometimes they ask questions that I lack the knowledge to answer. And I can just as often suffer doubt. Have I crossed the line of what is acceptable? Is there a risk that I’m simplifying important information in a way that could cause harm?”
The moment Claesson-Welsh accepted the Cancer Researcher of the Year 2017 award, her professional life was transformed. The exposure that began with the Cancer Gala and an appearance on national television has continued and shows no signs of waning. This move from a relatively anonymous existence in Uppsala’s Rudbeck Laboratory has not been without friction.
“The Swedish Cancer Society made it clear that the award recipient would be visible in the marketing of their organisation and asked if I would be willing to accept the distinction under this premise,” says Claesson-Welsh. “Initially, I wasn’t sure if I’d say yes. On the other hand, the Cancer Society’s work and my own work rest on the same foundation. Although it feels strange to come across myself on Stockholm billboards, this has all been an interesting and educational experience.”

Claesson-Welsh has unquestionably earned her place in Sweden’s rich tradition of successful cancer researchers. At sixty years of age, she is well on her way to redrawing the map for cancer care with her research on the role of blood vessels in tumours.
“New blood vessels form in tumours, which supply tumour cells with nutrients and oxygen and spread them throughout the body,” she says. “By mapping out how these blood vessels function, leak and contribute to metastases, we gather knowledge for creating cancer-inhibiting drugs and new combination therapies. Basically what this means is that we could transform cancer into a chronic disease.”
It may sound like science fiction, but the fact is that, in experiments on mice, her team has already shown that progression can be slowed. Their success has attracted industry interest. But could these findings really be the first rays of a light at the end of the tunnel?
“Absolutely,” says Claesson-Welsh. “We are moving in a clear direction towards a real goal. However, I can’t say when or even if we will reach that goal. We won’t move on to patient testing until we are sure that we are on the right track and that is not something that can be rushed. If necessary, I am ready to let the next generation of researchers take over. In our profession, you must recognise that you are only a small part of the big picture.”

As if life in the laboratory weren’t enough, Claesson-Welsh has also recently served as Co-Director of SciLifeLab, a national centre for molecular biosciences. Working days that were already long have grown even longer (she goes home to eat dinner at quarter to seven, then starts work again at eight o’clock) and even if the Claesson-Welsh children no longer need to be picked up from school, one may wonder: is this burden self-imposed or yet another confirmation that women in academia must always work just that little bit harder to get ahead?
“Well, for my own part,” she says, “I feel like after many years as senior galley slave, I now find it easier to say no to assignments. But this is certainly an extremely pertinent issue, where the higher education sector is still facing major challenges. Women must claim space and be represented. However, I am critical of affirmative quotas if we are only called in because a woman must be included. If this furthermore leads to women being forced to take more than their fair share of the tasks, which we tend to perform meticulously, it can be a very heavy load to bear.”
As director of the research team, Claesson-Welsh has had many opportunities to reflect on roles, responsibility and group dynamics.
“Over time, I’ve realised that I have to dare to really be the boss, and I feel now that I am leading my team continuously forward, which for me is essential if we are going to ward off tedium in the daily grind of the laboratory. A key ingredient in this is to let several people on the team share the same task, which benefits scientific discussion.”

A tangible confirmation that this philosophy works is the Cancer Society trophy that currently adorns the entrance to the Rudbeck Laboratory. Lena Claesson-Welsh’s name is engraved in the upper of two circles. The plan is to add one layer per award recipient each year over the next half-century, after which the disease will be finally conquered. But the question is whether we can afford to wait that long? In April 2016, the warning came that the number of cancer cases could double over the next twenty-five years if appropriate measures are not taken.
“Cancer research is expensive and more resources are needed to accelerate the work,” says Claesson-Welsh. “National strategic research initiatives and the EU’s European Research Council have given us the ability to compete for large grants. At the same time, we are actors on a global market and place great importance on international cooperation.”
Claesson-Welsh says she is currently drafting a joint application for a multi-year grant along with five leading research groups in Europe and North America. They all agree that blood vessel leakage holds the key to beating cancer, but are divided on the exact approach. Several of the relationships were formed during Claesson-Welsh’s stays as a visiting research fellow in the United States and new intercontinental steps will now be taken toward the journey’s destination. But with so many flight hours behind her and even more ahead, why this fidelity to Uppsala University, a geographically remote higher education institution, closer to the Arctic Circle than to Hamburg?
“I’ve always seen it as mutual fidelity, with an ever-present management that provides fabulous support whenever it is needed,” she says. “The opportunity to work in a culture characterised by cooperation and goodwill gives us a good base for regeneration and key recruitments, and despite scientific challenges, cancer researchers at Uppsala University have every reason to continue to see a bright future ahead!”

Magnus Alsne

2017-04-04

Facts: Lena Claesson-Welsh

Profession: Professor of Vascular Biology

Family: Husband Michael, also a professor, and two children

Lives in: Eriksberg in Uppsala

A good day at work: Meeting my colleagues – there have been so many other calls on my time lately.

On her bedside table: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, one of my absolute favourite writers.

A famous person I’ve met: Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. She seemed a bit shy and guarded to me.

My favourite spot in Uppsala: The Linnaeus Trails and area around Eriksberg are wonderful!