13 August 2014

The creative scientist

Research profile

Professor Anne Grapin-Botton is head of the Endoderm and pancreas development laboratory at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology. Two years ago, Anne relocated her laboratory from Switzerland to Copenhagen and brought some of her international team with her.

I like to be creative and science allows me to express myself through my research in the laboratory, says Anne Grapin-Botton.

I like to be creative and science allows me to express myself through my research in the laboratory, says Anne Grapin-Botton.

Born in France, 47-year-old Anne has a background in developmental biology and biochemistry. Today her laboratory is focused on pancreas development, regeneration and how to produce pancreatic cell types from stem cells.

Why and when did you choose to become a scientist?

I have always had a fascination about life and already knew at the age of twelve that I was going to be a scientist. There are two aspects of being a scientist that satisfy my personality. Firstly I like to be creative and science allows me to express myself through my research in the laboratory.  Science is quite close to art in that sense, with new creations in different styles. Secondly there is a very pragmatic aspect to understanding science; it is tangible, you can measure the process and it is rigorous.

Why is your research area important to society?

Our research is based on the interface between stem cells and embryonic development, focusing on the pancreas. We try and find out how a cell diversifies, what are the controls and try to recapitulate the process in vitro. The formation of a complex creature from a cell is a fascinating process. If we can understand this then in the future these cells could be used in a variety of different ways, including for example, replenishment of pancreatic beta cells for diabetic patients or producing model organs in vitro to allow for drug testing.

What is the highlight of your career?

A recent highlight was something we did in the laboratory and that was published last year. It was actually the fruition of many years of research, during which my team but also many others have invested in understanding the function of single genes and how cells interact to form the pancreas. Through this research we were bold enough to dare to reproduce the process in vitro. The observation we made was on trying to take the cells of pancreas apart and we found that small organs could form from a couple of cells. We found the minimal unit that creates a whole organ, including its diversity and its specific tree-like shape. It was an unusual way of doing science for me.

We usually have a hypothesis at the start and test this but this time we tried many conditions based on our understanding of pancreas development until we reached the goal of forming an organ from a few cells in vitro. I remember the anticipation and the excitement once it had worked. That is something I particularly love about science: it can create strong emotions, sometimes feelings of happiness, other times feelings of disappointment but in this case just sheer delight.

What would you like achieve here at your laboratory?

My move to DanStem has put me in a vibrant environment and enables us to combine our expertise in 3D culture with the human stem cell expertise of other DanStem groups. We are still trying to decipher pancreas development in mice and have developed interaction with Niels Bohr Institute to try to model this in silico and apply what we find to human cells. I don’t have a set of final career goals but I do have a plan for the next ten years so I can use resources wisely and invest in the right research.

My overall focus is to achieve a production of a small human pancreas that can be used to study human development and for drug testing.  We currently largely rely on comparing animal models to understand how human embryos develop and so have little direct information about human development for obvious ethical reasons. We are now trying to reproduce the in vitro organ production we achieved from mouse cells, with human embryonic stem cells. It is also possible that our in vitro production of organs will help to replace actual cells in human, the most common expectation from stem cell research.

There has been tremendous progress in the last 15 years but there are many hurdles. Some of them are technical and I am hopeful they will be overcome but there are also ethical, societal and financial considerations for such treatments.

How do you like living in Copenhagen?

Having worked and lived in the USA and other European cities in both France and Switzerland, I was really surprised to find Copenhagen so very different. It was a very pleasant shock to find a very unique culture, unlike anything I had ever experienced, a society which is a lot more collective in its values. So I like living here a lot, I really enjoy the combination of collectivism and individual initiatives. Regarding the language we decided as a family to have the mindset of moving here for a long time. So we bought a house and we are all learning Danish and my 9 year-old son is already fluent. Being a migrant comes with its challenges and my Danish colleagues tell me I need to watch the TV series ‘Matador’ to fully understand Danish culture.

What do you do with your spare time?

In my spare time I really enjoy to sew and create things that you cannot buy in the shops. I also try to spend as much time as possible with my husband and three kids. We love to do many outdoor activities including long distance hiking and skiing. If there is one thing I do miss, it is the mountains.