The accidental researcher
Luca Guardabassi is a professor at the Department of Veterinary Disease Biology – for 17 years, he has researched antibiotic resistance, always focusing on public health and animal welfare. Recently, he was appointed director of the interdisciplinary research centre UC Care, financed by the University of Copenhagen 2016 strategy fund. The vision of the centre is to become financially sustainable on the basis of collaboration with industry.
Born in Florence, Italy, 47-year-old Luca Guardabassi took his degree in veterinary medicine in 1994. That same year, a Danish girlfriend brought him to Denmark, and following a year working as a meat inspector in a South Jutland slaughterhouse, he was accepted as a PhD student at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University. The institution has since then undergone several mergers and name changes, but Luca Guardabassi stayed on and has slowly but surely established a solid research group with significant international clout. Today, he is recognised as one of the country's most important researcher profiles in the area of antibiotic resistance.
Why is your research area important to society?
We should minimise the use of antibiotics in animals to reduce the risk of transferring antibiotic resistance to humans. Over the past 15 years, Denmark has reduced the antibiotics consumption significantly and now ranks among the countries in Europe with the lowest consumption of antibiotics in the food production industry.
However, the public debate on antibiotics continues unabated – but I am not sure that we can make further reductions. We should initiate a new debate and ask other, and more relevant, questions. It seems absurd to me that a chicken in the supermarket cold counter should cost the same as a large cola. As a consumer, you cannot expect that such a chicken has led a happy and drug-free life during its short existence as a production animal.
Society needs to choose: Do we want cheap meat, or should we give priority to healthy food and animal welfare? The politicians should focus much more on this issue, but consumers naturally bear a huge responsibility, too. Personally, I don't mind paying more for better and safer meat – also to support a sustainable business for agricultural producers.
Earlier in my career, I focused on the risk aspect of the use of antibiotics – a large part of my work was to analyse the danger of infection and the dissemination of resistant bacteria, between animals as well as from animals to humans. Today, my approach is more solution-oriented – it is important to me to help change the status quo actively. How do we reduce antibiotic resistance? How do we ensure a sustainable animal production? I used to point to risks – now I point to solutions.
What was a high point in your career?
One great thing is UC Care, which is a newly established interdisciplinary centre involving four faculties at the University of Copenhagen.
Antibiotics have reduced mortality in humans and improved animal health over the last 50 years. However, our use of antibiotics also creates resistant bacteria that are an increasing threat to public health. We need holistic research into the development of new antibiotics and into the appropriate use of existing drugs.
We are looking for new methods to limit the use of antibiotics – but we also do research into completely new types of medication. Interdisciplinary research is challenging, and as centre director I need good communication and translation skills to get veterinarians, sociologists, farmers, doctors and psychologists to speak the same language. Interdisciplinary collaboration is often easier on paper than in real life. The centre has a unique profile and represents high-quality research, so it will be exciting when results really start ticking in.
UC Care is divided into six different research theme platforms, spanning from basic molecular research over sustainable agriculture to sociological studies of doctor/patient relationships. For example, why are some doctors – and veterinarians – more likely to prescribe antibiotics?
I am a strong advocate for the university's collaboration with industry. It is vital to me that our research is socially relevant and can be implemented in the laboratory as well as in agriculture. I'm very pragmatic in this way. My ambition for UC Care is that in a few years, the research centre can stand alone and survive without UCPH financing.
What are your most important research results?
I have had many breakthroughs and written many publications, so it's hard to single one out. But I'm very proud to have been able to build a strong research team with heavy international impact within such a limited time. When I was PhD student, only one other person worked on antibiotic resistance at the Department of Veterinary Disease Biology. Today, we have a twenty-strong research group with close contact to society. The first two PhD students that I supervised are now associate professors in the research group. It is a great professional satisfaction for me to help talented young people well on their way into a research career. At the same time it is important for the research group to be a sustainable unit – that the group results not only depend on the results of individuals, but just as much on a collective effort.
Why and when did you choose to become a researcher?
As a child, I wanted to be a truck driver. But my brother became a veterinarian, so it soon became clear to me that this was also the route I must choose. But research was not part of the original roadmap – my ending up in the PhD project back then happened more or less by chance. For me, it was a way to stay in Denmark at the time. Scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by chance in 1928, so the significance of chance events in research should not be underestimated. For me, becoming a researcher did not come natural, but my more or less chance encounter with the world of academic research has now developed into a bit of a life story.
What do you do when you are not working?
I spend time with my family – I'm married and have two children; a girl of 13 and a boy of five. We own a house in Montenegro, where I relax and recharge mentally. Once my days of research are over, I dream of moving there permanently, plant 500 olive trees and start up my own production of olive oil. I find outdoor work relaxing – it is a perfect contrast to my sedentary work and computer-based research.