Pathfinder: Q&A with Peter Ratcliffe
The Oxford Branch investigator on the excitement of a ‘Sunday morning moment’ in science.
Peter Ratcliffe, who was appointed Ludwig’s newest member in July, has transformed scientists’ understanding of how cells react to oxygen levels. We had a chance to catch up with him and chat about his work.
How did you get interested in this area of research?
I’m a kidney specialist by training and became interested in how the kidneys respond to oxygen in order to regulate erythropoietin (EPO), a type of hormone that helps produce red blood cells. When the body is deficient in EPO, red blood cells can’t be produced, and a lack of EPO can indicate a kidney problem.
Can you give a layman’s description of your research?
My laboratory works on understanding how cells in the body detect how much oxygen is available to them, and especially how they respond to a lack of oxygen. This has led to a better understanding of the development of diseases such as cancer and pulmonary or cardiovascular disease, where lack of oxygen plays an important role. We’re working to better understand these pathways and how they might be manipulated to treat these diseases. What advances do you see in the coming decade as a result of the work you’re doing?
The research has great potential for the development of new treatments for cancer and heart disease. I still continue to look after patients in the hospital, those who will hopefully in time benefit directly as a result of this research. Many major pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs that inhibit the oxygen sensing system and mimic hypoxia (low oxygen). The hope is that this will be beneficial for one or more of the diseases that encompass low oxygen delivery.
You’ve stated that China is a crucial partner in research collaborations. What are the dynamics at play?
China offers major opportunities for collaborations not only because the government has recently made substantial investments in science and technology but also because of the country’s size and relative genetic homogeneity of the population. Predisposition to disease is different in Europe and China, and if we’re going to address disease mechanisms as they are occurring in the human race, we need to engage with other countries. Also, it’s increasingly important to become involved in international research collaborations in order to share experiences and knowledge, and benefit from the cross-fertilization of ideas across the international landscape.
At this point in your career, what prompted you to accept your appointment as a member?
It was an exciting opportunity to extend my existing research program, which is well aligned with the aims and vision that Ludwig Oxford is currently undertaking. I hope it will allow me to add value both to the work I’m doing and to Ludwig itself.
You have received a number of prestigious awards and prizes. Which meant the most to you and why?
They all mean a lot to me. I’m an active researcher, which means I address questions to which we don’t know the answers. Inevitably in that process, many negative answers are uncovered. Putting it simply, a large amount of what goes on in my lab doesn’t work. So these awards and prizes are a vote of confidence in me, my lab and my staff and they sustain us during those times that aren’t quite as rosy. And that’s important, because you have to be sustained during the tough times in order to ultimately make the positive discoveries.
Are you a proponent of open access? Is it a positive factor in scientific research?
Yes and yes. It’s an important aspect of research findings and there’s no question that one of the most fundamental components of human civilization is the ability to transfer large amounts of data and knowledge efficiently between one individual and another.
Greater access to scholarship serves the strategic goals of greater international impact and collaboration. Even though most open-access systems charge authors publication fees and give readers free online access to the full text of the articles, I believe that scientific collaboration, advancement and utilization will be facilitated by free access to information.
Of course, for researchers, a big question is how much they have to set aside from grants to pay for open-access publication. But I believe the benefits outweigh this drawback as the research process can be accelerated through data sharing, and for researchers it brings increased visibility, usage and impact of their work.
Did you ever consider another career path?
I’m always considering other career paths. Seriously, I can’t really identify how or why I got into medical research. To me, science remains a unique profession, one that gives me the opportunity to earn support for and pursue my ideas. Working on a problem gives me a sense of the spine-tingling excitement one feels in trying to unravel something no one knows. In research there is a real thrill in discovery and in the immense satisfaction in simply gaining an understanding of the problems you’ve spent months and sometimes years grappling with. Most researchers are addicted to it.
What keeps you motivated and excited about your research?
I call them Sunday morning moments. These are thrilling moments precipitated by a call from a postdoc on a Sunday morning to tell me the results of an experiment. It means that the experiment was done on a Saturday, the result was read on Sunday morning and it was positive, hence the call to me. When this occurs it’s a heady moment and that’s what I’m addicted to – probably akin to what an athlete feels winning a gold medal at the Olympics.
It’s also a rare occurrence as most of the results from the experiments are negative, so they usually wait and tell me on Monday morning.
How can young scientists make the most of the institution at which they find themselves? What advice would you give to a young scientist?
Be confident in your ideas. Look for areas where you can seriously challenge existing wisdom. Don’t follow mainstream ideas and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. If you have a novel idea or approach, test it out; see if it fits the evidence. If it does, go with it. Think about what other people in the field are working on and try to do something that is unique where there is an unmet gap and focus on that. The important thing is you believe that the problem you’re addressing is tractable and that its importance will become apparent once the solution is gained.