23 May 2023
When EMBO Young Investigator Hind Medyouf explored new directions for her research she instinctively turned to EMBO’s online directory of members and investigators. “My team investigates the role of the microenvironment in cancer, to uncover tumour-stroma interactions that can be exploited as vulnerabilities to improve therapies for patients,” says Medyouf, a group leader at the Georg-Speyer-Haus, Frankfurt, Germany. “Although our main focus is on leukaemia, some of our findings, such as the therapeutic benefit of targeting innate immune checkpoints, are likely relevant in other disease contexts.”
When Medyouf’s team started to explore the significance of their discovery in brain metastasis, she naturally looked for a partner within the EMBO community and found Manuel Valiente, an EMBO Young Investigator heading the Brain Metastasis group at CNIO, Spain. “The interaction was immediately positive,” recalls Medyouf. “Manuel shared his expertise, tools, and even hosted us for short visits, supported by EMBO networking funds.”
There is an immediate willingness to help.Hind Medyouf, EMBO Young Investigator
This collaboration has also led to RISEBrain, an EU-funded consortium coordinated by Medyouf and Valiente. “Within RISEBrain, we aim to revert immune suppression locally in the brain, to elicit effective immunotherapies in brain metastasis,” says Medyouf. “We also want to develop ways to identify the tell-tale signs – or biomarkers – of brain metastasis and those potentially predicting response to immunotherapies, to maximise treatment potential. For this, we needed to find a collaboration partner.”
The team turned to EMBO Installation Grantee Serap Aksu, a biophysical engineer at Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey. “Serap develops highly sensitive optical biosensors and point-of-care devices that can serve to detect disease biomarkers,” says Medyouf. “We arranged to talk in person at an EMBO annual meeting and have since formed a partnership that extends to RISEBrain and beyond. Building organ-on-a-chip models is our next challenge with Serap. When you contact someone in the EMBO network things just click – there is an immediate willingness to help.”
At an EMBO Young Investigator Programme retreat in Italy in 2018, Florent Ginhoux spontaneously arranged to go for a morning run with Matteo Iannacone from San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milan, Italy. “After getting to know each other, the conversation naturally turned to science,” recalls Ginhoux, a group leader at the Gustave Roussy Cancer Campus, Paris, France. “It turned out Matteo and I were both working on the same cell type – Kupffer cell, a liver resident macrophage – from a metabolic perspective from my side and relating to hepatitis and other liver infections from his side. When we put our heads together, it was like one of those click moments where suddenly everything makes sense,” says Ginhoux. The team carried out studies that led to the publication of back-to-back papers, one of several fruitful partnerships Ginhoux has enjoyed with current and former EMBO Young Investigators.
“Others include Ido Amit (Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel), Martin Guilliams (Ghent University, Belgium), and Sonia Garel (Collège de France, Paris),” adds Ginhoux, who is now an EMBO Member. “I initially reached out to Sonia just because she happened to be working a stone’s throw from my parent’s house. Through the programme there are so many ways to make that initial connection that can open up huge opportunities to learn and take research in exciting directions.”
When Madeline Lancaster was a postdoc in the group of EMBO Member Jürgen Knoblich at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, Vienna, Austria, one of her experiments did not go to plan. “For my project, we cultured neural stem cells in standard petri dishes when we realised that under certain conditions neural precursor tissues were self-organising to form 3D structures resembling the human brain,” recalls Lancaster, now a group leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom. “This was very unexpected and very exciting: it paved the way for the development of cerebral organoids – known as brain organoids – which have enabled us to ask fundamental questions about the human brain not possible using other models.”
Lancaster, who since became an EMBO Young Investigator and EMBO Member, says that the Young Investigator Programme has provided a launchpad to develop collaborative projects. “Using cerebral organoids we are able to dive deeper into important questions such as what sets our comparatively larger brains apart from other animals and apes,” she says. “The work could also have important implications for understanding neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and intellectual disabilities.”
Being an EMBO Young Investigator brought me together with people with different expertise, perspectives, and ideas.Madeline Lancaster, EMBO Young Investigator Programme alumna and EMBO Member
“I have developed fantastic interactions with others in the EMBO community, including Prisca Liberali (Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, Basel, Switzerland), Meritxell Huch (Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany), John O’Neill (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK), Wanda Kukulski (University of Bern, Switzerland), Xavier Trepat and Nuria Montserrat (Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain), and Mina Gouti (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin, Germany) – to name just a few,” Lancaster says. “Being an EMBO Young Investigator brought me together with people with different, yet highly complementary expertise, perspectives, and ideas.”
In 2014, when Jan-Willem Veening joined the EMBO Young Investigator Programme, he was an early-stage group leader searching for three things: ideas, sequencing facilities, and collaborators. “The timing that I joined the programme was really key,” recalls Veening, who is now professor and head of the Laboratory of Systems and Synthetic Microbiology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. “I was facing many of the challenges that are part and parcel of being a young group leader, and all of a sudden I was connected to a network of amazing scientists from across Europe and the world.”
“My group is interested in the intricacies of bacterial life and in particular of the pneumococcus, and one of the things we really benefited from was the opportunity to tap into the resources at EMBL’s world-leading genomics core facility,” he says. “On the other hand, connections made across the EMBO community have led to projects focused on aspects as varied as the bacterium’s cell biology, the development of antibiotic resistance, and factors affecting its virulence such as its phenotypic variation.”
Veening explains these include Rut Carballido-López (National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, Paris, France), Andrew Lovering (University of Birmingham, UK), François-Xavier Barre (French National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris), Sebastian Hiller (University of Basel, Switzerland), Nassos Typas (EMBL, Heidelberg, Germany) and Birgitta Henriques-Normark (Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden).
“As an EMBO Young Investigator, I had the feeling of being part of a big family,” Veening adds. “I made friends for life: sparring partners who provided critical feedback on my group’s research and collaborators that have taken our science in new directions.”
EMBO Young Investigator Programme alumnus Carsten Janke says that one of the biggest legacies the programme left was on his attitude to science. “The programme puts emphasis on peer support, which made a world of difference – rather than focussing on safe experiments this encouraged me to take risks,” says Janke, a research director at the Institut Curie, Paris, France, who studies tubulin code, a phenomenon that has recently been thrown into the limelight due to studies linking modifications to a range of late-onset human diseases.
“Microtubules – a key part of a cell’s skeleton – play roles in the cell’s form, motility, division, as well as the transport of elements within the cell. Modifications of the tubulin code can impact the healthy functioning of these essential components, but the effects can be very subtle and occur over very long periods of time and at many different scales. Until recently this had been largely overlooked, something my group wants to change. This requires excellent minds from many scientific disciplines,” he says.
The EMBO community creates a very close group of people.Carsten Janke, EMBO Young Investigator Programme alumnus
Consequently, Janke’s connections with the EMBO community continue apace. “One example is a project funded through a European Research Council Synergy Grant, that is focused on uncovering the molecular effects of the tubulin code and their impact on organism-wide functions,” he explains. “This partnership includes EMBO Associate Member Eva Nogales (UC Berkeley, USA) and EMBO Member Filippo del Bene (Institut de la Vision, Paris, France).” Another is ongoing work with EMBO Young Investigator Minhaj Sirajuddin (InStem, Bangalore, India), who has developed remarkable structural biology approaches that support our studies of microtubule associated proteins. “The EMBO community creates a very close group of people, it’s been great to connect with like-minded colleagues through this incredible network,” says Janke.
The EMBO Young Investigator Programme also provides opportunities for PhD students working in participants’ labs to take part in training courses, visit other groups and core facilities, and to convene once a year for a week of science and training. “Inspiring young scientists and providing training for their scientific careers is something that has a lasting impact,” says Petr Svoboda, a group leader at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, Czech Republic, who has helped to organize the EMBO Young Investigator PhD course for more than a decade.
“In addition to scientific talks and posters, students learn skills such as writing, presentations, figure creation, and receive personal career advice. Through my involvement in the organization, I feel I have enhanced my own skills as a mentor and lecturer.”
Sometimes what begins as a casual conversation can be a catalyst that takes research in new directions – as Svoboda found when he got talking to fellow EMBO Installation Grantee Kristian Vlahoviček (University of Zagreb, Croatia) during a Young Investigator meeting at EMBO in Heidelberg, Germany. “We were at the bar after a long and rewarding day, and what began as a normal nerdy chat about data quickly became clear that it would be mutually beneficial to start a collaboration,” says Svoboda, who is now an EMBO Member. “Our research studies the molecular mechanisms governing control of gene expression as mammalian oocytes transition to embryos. Kristian has amazing bioinformatic approaches that help us to answer some of these puzzles. Because the programme connects people at a similar career stage, you can discuss your experiences hiring team members, applying for grants, and receive invaluable feedback on your research,” Svoboda says. “Our partnership has led to some of the papers I am most proud to have been involved in. And even after more than a decade of working together we still bring our groups together once a year to spend a week analysing data and exploring ideas. The network that the programme creates simply drives great science.”