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Interview: Research and education go hand in hand

We interviewed Prof. Péter Nagy, scientific director of the National Institute of Oncology, newly-appointed professor of the University of Veterinary Medicine Budapest and head of its redox biology research team. We asked him about the new cooperation as well as the hardships and beauty of being a researcher.

You are involved in a special area of basic oncology research called redox biology. Please tell us about your work.

Redox biology basically studies the physiological roles of oxidation processes. These processes have a key role in tumour progression, i.e., in the advancement of cancer as well as in metastasis formation. We also study the resistance mechanisms developing in response to various treatments. Cancer cells have a special trait: they produce much more oxidatives than normal cells, which affects the control of the different proteins. Proteins are key factors in the biological processes of cells. The various intracellular signal transmission processes are conducted by proteins, whose reprogramming along the oxidative processes forms an important element of tumour progression. That’s what we study.

How is the University of Veterinary Medicine Budapest related to this research?

Rector Prof. Péter Sótonyi lays great emphasis on strengthening the university’s scientific activities, that’s how I was brought in the picture. In our scientific work, we use special animal models which we currently produce partly in our own laboratory and partly in Professor Edward E. Schmidt’s lab at the University of Montana. Thanks to Rector Prof. Péter Sótonyi and Vice Rector for Science and Research Dr. Ákos Jerzsele, the UVMB will also use our scientific programme and the animal models we apply and develop, so we can be even more effective in our research in the future. We can also raise our collaboration with Professor Schmidt to a higher level, since the cooperation allows him to work at the UVMB in 20% of his time, which is a great achievement.

We got a sensational opportunity from the University: we can use a practically finished, modern and well-equipped lab. They acquired the key instruments we need, and we got a section in the animal house to store and develop our animal models. The heads of the two research teams will use the lab together, and we added two new colleagues to the team to support our work. We are offered a great opportunity and we want to make the most of it together.

You mentioned you use special animal models. How do you decide which animal to use for your research?

At present, we mostly use mice for our scientific activities. They are small and relatively efficient to work with. We apply modern, 21st-century technologies in our research. They are cost-intensive, so working with small animals makes it more cost-effective. Certain scientific activities require other animal models as well. For example, as far as Covid is concerned, the anti-SARS-CoV2 vaccine development project (in the likely scenario that we reach the level of developing animal models at some point) will no longer use mice, because their immune system is vastly different from humans. Mouse models are just not quite suitable for certain processes.

I assume the results of the UVMB-hosted project will affect the human area as well.

Yes, that’s part of the reason why we want to form a strong professional relationship between the National Institute of Oncology and the UVMB. In Hungary, the National Institute of Oncology is the stronghold of oncological care and science; lots of operations take place here, so we often work with human samples as well. The UVMB-hosted project will primary involve animal models, but these scientific activities are naturally interrelated. If you want to develop medicine efficiently, you must go down to the cellular level. In fact, you might even need to break down the processes to enzymes. We have a couple of drug candidates that we can launch in the pre-clinical trials. This will also be conducted as part of our collaboration with the UVMB. Dr. Zoltán Vincze, the head of the chemistry department helps us in this regard.

How should we imagine the work of the research team? What’s your typical day like?

The work of a researcher is highly diverse: beside the laboratory tasks, it also involves a lot of writing, such as articles and grant applications.

The various projects require a certain series of activities and tasks in progression. We come up with an idea how a problem could be solved. We design it, we carry out new experiments, for which we learn new methods – in fact, sometimes we invent new methods. Then we publish. The scientific results must be published in the professional journals, after undergoing a complicated and rigorous reviewing procedure. Criticisms must be addressed, sometimes new experiments must be conducted to validate claims. So we’re talking about a quite long and time-consuming process here. Of course, we have some routine tasks, too: keep order in the laboratory, prepare culture media, examine and care for animals, etc.

Nowadays universities are expected to go beyond education and dedicate a large share of their work to research. What’s your opinion about that? How can research connect to education?

If you look at the ranking of the world’s universities, you can see that their scientific activity is the largest factor in their evaluation. There’s no growth without science. If universities focus on nothing but education and don’t conduct any scientific activities, they will fall behind, they won’t be able to keep up with the latest achievements. The United States has a few universities that are specialized solely on education. They are lagging behind, they don’t get the respect that others do. They have a low prestige in the system. Science is one of the key factors, if not the most decisive factor in the academic world. Education and research must function side by side to make a university successful.

Who can become a good researcher? What characteristics do you need to be successful?

Talent is important, but dedication and motivation are more important than anything. Good researchers, who give important discoveries to the world, are formed in the long run and it requires a lot of perseverance. Scientific careers are very long: the university is followed by a doctoral and a post-doctoral programme, and then you face the most difficult part when you have to break into a new area, create you own school based on your own ideas. This is a stressful period; young colleagues don’t have money yet to start a scientific activity and neither do they have a large enough publication background to work as a recognized researcher. By the way, there are more and more grants in the world to address this problem and help young colleagues go through this difficult transitional period. Once you gain recognition, it usually brings funding and attracts talented students, too. We are already over that and I can tell you it is an interesting and exciting period despite all the difficulties. To sum up, I think a good researcher must be, first and foremost, a persistent and motivated person. Katalin Karikó is a great example: she never gave up, she kept going and tried to overcome every obstacle. Now we can see how many human lives were saved on account of her perseverance.

How important do you think foreign experience is, either for students and for researchers later?

Scientific work is practically a cross-border activity. They say researchers and scientists are world citizens. Our job requires us to work together with people from all over the world. To acquire certain techniques, students and future scientists need to get to the laboratories where those things are available. So I don’t think the key factor is staying in another country. What matters most is to be goal-oriented, be a real go-getter and able to find the expert of the given area who you can learn from. For example, people regularly come to us from America and Japan, because we can do certain things they can’t.

If you were to choose your career path now, would you take the same route?

Definitely. It’s one of the most exciting careers; you can never get bored, you always learn something new. The joy of discovery is a never-ending driving force for any scientist. You have to be born for this career that requires a persistent and motivated person. Many are afraid of it without a reason, I think. Unfortunately, the extremely rich and diverse impulses students are exposed to in our modern world does not favour persistence. Many take the easier path instead. No need to worry, though. In our experience, we have talented and motivated students, just like we did 20-30 years ago. If they can utilize the opportunities offered by the new technologies, they will be able to achieve things we could not. The future belongs to talented and dedicated students.