Kings College London – KINGS- United Kingdom
Prof. Dr. Heinz Jungbluth
1. How did you get into the autophagy field and why is the field important to you?
I work as a Child Neurologist and my interest in autophagy was stimulated by a single patient, an unfortunate and severely ill little boy whom I looked after until his premature death at the age of 3 months. His condition, Vici syndrome, had affected his brain, eyes, hearing, heart and immune system, and I reasoned that whatever was wrong with him must involve a biological mechanism of fundamental importance. I was also determined to find an answer for his family after his early death. As part of a collaborative international effort, my team subsequently identified the cause of Vici syndrome, recessive mutations in EPG5, now recognized as one of the key autophagy genes in humans, and defined a novel group of human diseases, congenital disorders of autophagy. The field is important to me because it links a potentially pharmacologically modifiable mechanism, autophagy, to a very wide range of early-onset neurodevelopmental and adult-onset neurodegenerative disorders presenting throughout life.
2. What is a key question in the autophagy field now? Where do you think the field is heading?
In my view, there are currently two interlinked key questions in the autophagy field, how to unravel the molecular links between autophagy and other intracellular processes also relevant for human disease, and how to develop more precise approaches to therapeutic autophagy modulation. In particular, it is likely that many proteins now implicated in autophagy play also a role in other intracellular trafficking processes as well as mitochondrial and lysosomal biology; a more precise delineation of these roles will not only advance understanding of cell biology but also help to develop more targeted therapies. Most therapeutic approaches to autophagy modulation currently employ methods that very generally stimulate or block autophagy, but I suspect that more precise targeting of individual steps of the pathway will be required to achieve maximum therapeutic effects whilst at the same time limiting undesirable side-effects.
3. Should you meet any scientist, currently living or deceased, who would it be and why?
I do not have any specific scientific hero as I do believe that science is as much about small and patient steps cumulatively generating novel insights as it is about the great breakthrough discovery. If I had to name one, it has to be Leonardo da Vinci, for limitless curiosity, creativity and inventiveness, and (important to me as a keen cyclist) as the first man to come up with a perfectly workable design for a bicycle as early as the 15th century.
4. What advice do you have for early career scientists that want to enter the autophagy field?
Try to look across the fence of your own specific research area and collaborate – there is nothing more stimulating than the exchange between different ideas, and approaching the same question from different angles, often resulting in unexpected and innovative answers.