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Interview with 2012 FameLab International Winner

Whilst speaking at the EU funded Sci Comm conference in Prague, Didac took the time to sit down for an interview for Lidové noviny. To find out about his interesting research and his science communication activities, read on:

Great news: your cells are dying

Your cells are dying. Didac Carmona opened with this piece of encouraging news at the Sci Comm Conference about science communication in Prague. His three-minute talk full of balloons explained what he is working on in his lab in Graz.


LN You study the suicidal behaviour of cells. Can you explain that further?

It’s an inbuilt suicidal programme that our cells have. When they are old, damaged or when they mutate, after being exposed to chemicals or harmful radiation, they can pose a risk to our body. That’s why they commit suicide. So they don’t harm us and the immune system can remove them from our body. Billions of cells die like this every day and are replaced by new ones, which is great news!

LN What happens when this mechanism fails?

Then dangerous cells continue to grow, multiply and can create a tumour. On the other side of the coin, there are cells that die even though they shouldn’t. If this happens to nerve cells in the brain, it can lead to neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. We’re searching for ways to save cells that shouldn’t be dying, and vice versa, we’re trying to kill the ones that should be dying, but refuse to do so.

LN What does this search look like in practice?

We test natural substances contained for example in tea, coffee, wine or chocolate. For now we are concentrating on substances that could save useful cells from suicide – that is after all a little easier than targeting specifically cancerous cells. If we want to force them to commit suicide we have to first ensure that the healthy cells aren’t dying alongside them.

LN How do you choose substances for testing?

We looked within a specific group of substances which includes thousands of compounds and chose a few hundred that are representative based on their chemical structure. We also get inspiration from traditional Chinese medicine and other things that have been tested over the centuries. This tells us which natural substances can contain something interesting worth investigating. I should probably mention that we always start our testing on yeast bacteria. They are very primitive cells, but many of the processes taking place within them can also be found in human cells.

LN But yeast is an independent organism, whereas human cells are a part of a bigger organism...

That’s a good point, but Professor Frank Madeo, with whom I have been working for many years, recently discovered that even yeast cells have a cell death programme. They communicate with each other and commit suicide. They’re actually clones, because a yeast community comes from one cell, so they have the same hereditary information. Thus, it makes sense that at one point some of them sacrifice themselves to benefit the rest of the community – so they don’t consume their nutrients and so on.

And it turns out that a lot of the things we see in yeast also works in fruit flies, worms and even cultivated human cells. That doesn’t cease to fascinate me.

LN Have you already found a substance that could serve as a cure?

We have a couple of substances that are showing promise, but we are still at the beginning. The journey from discovery to a cure is very long. For example you have to discover any side effects, those are usually tested on mice first and so on. So, we aren’t that close to a pill. I’m not saying it’s going to take 50 years, but perhaps 10. And during that time anything can happen, because cell death is a very complex process.

LN Once you find such a substance, is it going to be better to manufacture it in the form of pills, or to advise people to eat more of the foods that contain it?

If we find a substance like that and if we know that it is contained, for example, in cranberries, then I would say it is good to eat more cranberries...

LN All food contains hundreds of other substances which can have other effects, possibly negative…

Of course, but I think that where the aging mechanism is concerned it is also important that scientists look into the history of various cultures, like the Chinese one. These cultures have things they know are healthy. They are long term experiments running for hundreds of years. If it’s shown that some foods encourages human health, there’s probably something there.

But you are right, we have to be careful because when we take on a substance and start taking it in large doses we don’t know what will happen. Or it’s possible that the substance only works in conjunction with a different one contained in certain foods.

LN When you talk about food, which has had its benefits proven by hundreds of years of usage, why do we need your research?

We’re interested in how we, humans, work. It’s basic research which can point us in the direction of applied research. In short, we want to figure out how aging works on the molecular level. And when you discover a mechanism that can prolong a cell’s life you automatically think: ‘What would happen if…’ at this point the line between basic and applied research becomes blurry.

LN Is a suitable food palette the answer to the question of why people in Asian cultures live longer than we in Europe do?

This is just my personal opinion, but I think it can be related. However, there are other reasons. For example, one of the things known to prolong life is restricting calories. All big religions that have survived to this day have periods of lent. It’s possible to assume that there is something about fasting. It had already been tried out on mice in the 30’s, but in recent years it has been rediscovered. When you lower your calorie intake and regularly fast – for example one day you eat whatever you fancy and the next day you don’t eat anything at all – it has a positive effect on your health. Two different studies were conducted on monkeys. One showed that life is prolonged by doing this and the other concluded that it won’t prolong life, but rather the period during which the individual remains healthy.

We are also working on that in my lab and we think that one of the mechanisms is the so-called autophagy, aka cells eating themselves. During their life cells collect a lot of waste inside. When you let them starve they start looking for food and this forces them to clean up their insides. They destroy excessive and potentially toxic substances by turning them into new building blocks like amino acids.

We are trying to identify substances that would kick-start this mechanism. For example in 2009 our lab published a paper, according to which this process can be started by a substance called spermidine.

LN Does that mean we could have it in a pill and mimic our body starving?

Exactly. That’s one of our dreams. We have to be pragmatic – everyone knows that fatty foods, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption is bad for your health, but many continue to do those things. I would say it’s our nature. It would be wonderful to have something that would simulate starving. Personally I would take such a pill.

LN There is a Czech actor, Jaroslav Dušek, who is a big proponent of fasting, which he has done for as long as 30 days. Isn’t it dangerous?

That depends on the individual. If you are weak it’s not a good idea to go 30 days without food. We should be logical about it. If I have never run a marathon I’m not suddenly going to run one without proper training.

Of course I, myself, have tried fasting and I have to say that one of the hard parts you have to get used to is the social aspect. If I fast a week every month it’s possible that a friend is going to be celebrating a birthday and will invite me to an opulent dinner. I can, of course, decline the invitation, but if you do this all the time your social life becomes more complicated. Everyone has to decide for themselves if they can do it for prolonged periods of time. And that’s another reason why I think a pill mimicking the effects of fasting wouldn’t be a bad thing.

LN Can a similar mechanism be used when curing cancer? There has been speculation for some time about the effects of fasting on this disease.

That’s a controversial question. It seems that cancerous cells have a problem with autophagy because they grow at ridiculous speeds and need a lot more energy than healthy cells. When you cut off their source of energy it can be a problem for them. There are American studies which show that setting autophagy off during chemotherapy increases its effects. At the same time there are studies which show that if you set off autophagy, you can actually prolong the life of some tumorous cells. So it’s complicated. Of course, I would like to be able to take one pill and live forever, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.

LN Before we finish, let’s go back to your talk with which you won a science communication competition. Do you think your success was due to the subject, or the way you presented it?

I would say both. Cancer, same as aging and things related to it, are very popular subjects. On the other hand I think that every subject can be made interesting if you can capture people’s attention. In my case, the balloon visuals gets stuck in your head when the balloon – the bad cell – commits suicide and punctures itself with a needle. That along with the moment of surprise when the bang goes off, leads to you remembering the talk. Even if I didn’t know anything about cell suicide, I would remember that guy with the popping balloons.

Science communication is about sowing the seed of interest. It’s impossible to introduce a whole scientific subject and all its complexities in such a short time. However, three minutes is enough to get someone interested.

LN We can probably agree that communicating science to children is worthwhile – there are potential future scientists among them. But, according to you, why is it necessary to communicate science to an adult audience?

One of the main reasons is that most of university-based research is funded by taxpayers’ money. People have the right to know what’s happening with their money and what the outcomes are. Another reason is education – I don’t think that adults have less of a right than children to education in science and science-related questions. I, myself, like to learn about other fields of research I don’t know.

Also, I think that when you show people the purpose of science, it will be easier for them to understand why it’s necessary to continue funding it. When the government wants to cut the research budget, people can say: ‘Wait a minute, don’t do this!’

And science is obviously a part of our society, our culture and our evolution. It’s important to show people that it’s a normal activity, that scientists aren’t nutcases and magicians, but normal people doing interesting and useful things.

LN Another round of the FameLab competition is being launched in the Czech Republic. What advice would you give to scientists who want to take part?

I would probably tell them to take a step back from what they do and look at it as if they were seeing it for the first time. I have been working with cells committing suicide for 10 years and it’s become routine – another cell has died… but then I tell myself: ‘Hold on! That cell is dying, so the others can survive. That’s incredible!’

When you forget your expertise and look at your research from afar you can enjoy a bit of that child-like fascination again. And then you can easily communicate this passion and fascination to others.


Originally from Barcelona, Didac studied biochemistry in Tübingen, Germany and in Seattle, USA. He works at the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Graz in Austria. His research is focused on aging on the molecular level and age-related diseases. He is an active science communicator. In 2012 he won FameLab International. Last week he spoke at the Sci Comm Conference in Prague organised by the British Council and the Charles University.

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