30 August 2016

It felt like discovering a treasure trove


David Gloriam is looking for ways to produce new and better drugs. He considers himself an adventurer exploring the human genome.

By Mikke Andreas Beck

When Swedish David Gloriam was five years old, his grandmother died of cancer. And despite being very young and terribly sad, he made a choice he still remembers.

“I was very fond of her, and it was hard for me. I remember I sat at home on the sofa, crying. And I remember thinking that I wanted to fight diseases,” David Gloriam, who is 38-year-old today, explains.

And even though, as a child, he also considered working at his father’s workplace, the Swedish sweet manufacturer Cloetta, and he considered an education where he would be able to work theoretically and indoors in the summer while working practically and outdoors in the summer, he nonetheless started his training as a chemist in 1998, in Uppsala, Sweden.

“From early on, I liked chemistry, and I also really appreciated practical work. And organic chemistry is in fact a craft; it’s like building a musical instrument. You combine craft and theory, and I wanted to be one of those people who create new drugs,” says David Gloriam.

Why did you become a scientist?

“I actually thought that I wanted to work as a chemical engineer in the medical industry, helping patients by developing new drugs. However, while at university, I found out I could try my hand at research during the summer holiday. The first year, I worked in a biological laboratory, but that was not a success, and I actually came to the conclusion that research was not for me.

“Then the following year, I tried bioinformatics, working intensely with computers, and I quickly realised that I could accomplish a lot and get good results. It was truly one of those eye-opening moments as a whole new world unfolded before me. And as a result I took evening classes in bioinformatics and computer programming, while simultaneously finishing my MA.”

What do you do?

“My primary focus is identifying and studying receptors in the human genome with drug research in view. The human body has approx. 400 receptors, which are the places in the body where signal compounds from outside are received.

“In order to determine a receptor’s function, you have to know what activates it. Today, we have already discovered the 400 receptors, but we still don’t know the function of all of them, or what activates them.

“As a PhD student, I explored the human genome, and I found 26 of the 400 receptors. It felt like discovering a treasure trove. Following my discovery, other scientists have determined their function and today at least six of them are used in the medical industry.

“This is very encouraging, but I was a little disappointed that I was not allowed to determine their function. However, this is what I and my research group are currently doing; we study which signal compounds activate the receptors, and this helps us find out how it works, and how it can be included in fighting diseases.”

Why is your research important to society?

“Well, we can’t repair the engine, if we don’t know how it works. It’s no different for human diseases. The receptors I work with are a huge and important target. 30% of all drugs sold today work by activating receptors.

“Finding out what activates them is an important foundation for the development of new drugs, because these receptors are terribly important to the understanding of how to fight diseases. In simple terms, they hold gigantic potential.

“If we map their function, we will be able to locate new targets for drugs which will allow us to potentially cure more diseases. If you locate the function, you have an entry gate. In other words, you have a theoretical possibility to create a better drug than the one you had before,” David Gloriam explains.

Talk about a career high

“Well, this was undoubtedly when I became a Lundbeck Fellow and received a grant from the European Research Council which provided funding for my continued research. It was absolutely crucial. It meant than I had a job and that I wasn’t forced to seek employment elsewhere.

“It meant I was able to remain at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, to recruit people from outside, and that I could conduct the research of my dreams. When I started working at the University of Copenhagen, I worked on my own. Today there are 10 people in my research group. These are busy but happy times!”

What is the best thing about your job?

“Oh, there are many things: The fact that every day brings something new. Not a single day is like the day before. I’m an impatient person and I like to receive new input on a daily basis, which I do.

“That we’re doing well, that my research group generates results. To watch young researchers grow and become independent.

“The fact that you explore the world of nature, the things that have been created throughout millions of years; that you’re both a student and a teacher in that process. Getting the grants that enables you to conduct the research of your dreams. It’s like being a fish in water, isn’t it,” David Gloriam says with a smile.

What do you do when you are not conducting research?

“I sleep! Ha ha ha,” David Gloriam responds with a huge laugh, before continuing,

“I hug and kiss my two children and my wife. My family and their wellbeing are my primary concerns. I want to be the father who teaches his children to ride a bike; I want to travel with them in order for us to explore and discover the world and how things work together.

“I have basically had to give up on sports, as a child and student I played floorball and inline hockey, but I no longer have the time. However, we run and train together as a family. And I do try to make time for practical jobs. I like instant results and to work with my hands.”

"My favorite hobby since I was a child is to build and renovate, it's a way to relax. When I was a child I whished for tools instead of toys. I got my first drill as a 10 year old. Right now I am spending time renovating the house and you can also find a few pieces of furniture that I have made myself in my home."