Anton Berns: Research is International

On April 8, 2013, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Skoltech President Edward Crawley signed a three-sided agreement to found the Skoltech Center for Stem Cell Research. The center is the first of 15 Centers for Research, Education and Innovation (CREI) that Skoltech plans to launch by 2020.

The center unites leading researchers from multiple disciplines, from chemistry and biology to medicine, from technology to computer science. The researchers will develop deeper insight into the science and applications of stem cells as well as the techniques to study them. These approaches will then lead to new therapies and drugs.

On June 3, 2013, the Skoltech Board of Trustees confirmed Anton Berns as the director for this CREI. Skoltech spoke with Professor Berns to learn about his future plans, research into stem cells and expectations to live in Russia.

What made you excited to engage in a brand new university? 

I was enthused by the concept underlying this initiative. To engage top-research groups in building a university by making it attractive to participate is a wonderful concept. Furthermore, I know many of the group leaders involved in this. I know some of them already for a very long time and I respect and like them. So it is fun to join forces with them. But it is also a big challenge. This has to become a success. This should start with building trust among the politicians, the management and the scientists. Only then will Skoltech fully get off the ground.

Why is it so important to conduct research in induced pluripotent stem cells?

Stem cells form the basis for regenerative medicine. They can be used to study e.g. inherited disease and will also in the long run enable us to “restore” diseased tissues. Understanding how they can be nurtured and stimulated to expand is also at the base of longevity. In order to use them to the benefit of man we have to understand all the ins and outs of stem cells in order to safely use them in the future. A first-rate stem cell research team at Skoltech would not only train students in good biomedical science, the center should also serve as a reference point that can be — and probably should be — consulted before stem cell technologies are implemented in the clinic. This can help to prevent inappropriate and unacceptable stem cell experiments with patients.

What practical results do you hope to achieve through the work of the Center for Stem Cell Research?

My goal is to create an efficiently working lab with high-quality group leaders who work at an internationally competitive level. This should give visibility and esteem to Skoltech. The rest follows.

What experience do you consider pivotal in preparing you to lead the center?

I have lead the Netherlands Cancer Institute for many years, an organization that includes both a hospital and a research institute. It is very useful knowing the ins and outs of directing such an organization, which is substantially larger than Skoltech is projected to be. I know what is needed. Furthermore, I have ample experience in how research funding should be organized. I am still a Trustee at Cancer Research UK, a cancer fund spending about 350 million pounds (about USD 530 million) every year on cancer research. A good funding structure will also be key for Skoltech in the future.

How important is international collaboration in research?

This is critical. Research is international. If you do not collaborate with excellent colleagues elsewhere in the world, you soon will be second rate.

What are your thoughts about working and living in Russia?

I will spend part of my time in Russia. I did something similar before when I spent several years in the US. My family will stay in the Netherlands. I will also continue my own research at the Netherlands Cancer Institute as the three years I committed to Skoltech is too short to transfer my own research. Obviously, Moscow is now a cosmopolitan city, making it easier for foreigners to adapt. I think it will be an interesting experience.

Do you have any previous connections with Russia?

I have traveled in Russia for a few weeks over 20 years ago and gave lectures with a group of colleagues in Moscow, Kiev, and St. Petersburg. So my experience is very limited.

What are the advantages of teaming up with Russia?

I think Russian Biomedical research needs a boost. The attraction of teaming up with Russia is that there are many excellent students and scientists. Good people are always in short supply. I hope that we can identify and train many young Russian scientists that subsequently can help to advance biomedical science in Russia thereby contributing to the international research endeavor.

What is your favorite part of higher education? 

My favorite part is research, but of course this includes teaching students, postdocs and independent investigators how to do research in the right way: according to rigorous standards both practically—in executing experiments—and ethically.

Senior Group Leader, Division of Molecular Genetics, The Netherlands Cancer Institute. Professor of Experimental Genetics of Inherited Diseases, University of Amsterdam.

Anton Berns studied biochemistry at the University of Nijmegen and received his Masters degree in1969  and his PhD in 1972  from that same University. He did his postdoctoral training in the group of Rudolf Jaenisch at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA., where he studied the role of retroviruses in causing lymphomas in mice. In 1976 he returned to the University of Nijmegen where he became junior staff member. His group explored proviral insertional mutagenesis as a means to identify new oncogenes. In 1985 he was appointed as staff scientist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and in 1986 he became head of the Division of Molecular Genetics of the Institute. Here his group did pioneering work to generate and utilize genetically modified mice as a tool to search for new cancer genes. In  1999 to 2011, he served as Director of Research and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Netherlands Cancer Institute – Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital.  He retired from that position at the end of 2011.

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