30 minutes with...Professor Ernst Wolvetang
What is the exact title of your role?
Professor in stem cell biology and Senior Group leader at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering (AIBN) and Nanotechnology of the University of Queensland.
Where do you currently work and how long have you been working there?
I have been working at the AIBN for 12 years now.
I am sure you have seen a great deal of change in epilepsy treatments. What do you think is the most exciting change and why?
I think a very important change has been the availability and application of genomics (sequencing a patient’s DNA) that allows the identification of responsible gene variants that cause epilepsy. The next step is now to use this information in combination with our personalised stem cell models to find better and more effective personalised treatments.
Where else have you worked in your life?
I did my PhD at the University of Amsterdam in the Amsterdam Medical Centre, then did one set of post-doctoral studies in the Biochemistry department of Monash University, then another in the Centre for Early Human Development of the Institute for Reproduction and Development Monash University, before leading a research laboratory in the Australian Stem Cell Centre at Monash.
What do you love about your job?
I really enjoy understanding the beautiful intricacies of how human cells work at a molecular level. This next allows one to discover how a small defect can lead to disease and then informs the discovery and testing of treatments. Ultimately making a difference for people’s health will continue to drive all of my research.
How do you think Epilepsy Queensland can have the biggest impact for people living with epilepsy?
It is hugely important that patients are well informed about what causes their epilepsy and are supported in managing their conditions as best as possible. Beyond providing this patient support and information framework I think Epilepsy Queensland has an important role to play in raising awareness in the general population and, by facilitating fundraising, in supporting research into epilepsy.
How do you feel research can bring hope for people living with epilepsy?
Epilepsy is really an umbrella term, and the variability in the causes, severity, onset, and drug responses between patients is just starting to become understood. Excitingly, we are now living in a time where new technologies for investigating the molecular and cellular processes that underlie these differences between patients are available. I therefore strongly believe that epilepsy research will lead to better insight into the drivers of epilepsy, more rapid and accurate diagnoses, and more effective individualised drug treatments.
How does your work help people living with epilepsy to live well with epilepsy?
We reprogram blood cells from people with epilepsy into so-called induced pluripotent stem cells. This means that we artificially create stem cells that carry the exact genetic make-up of the patient. Importantly, this allows us to create mini-representations of different brain regions of the patient, called brain organoids. Amazingly, these pea-sized “mini-brains” can show seizure- like activity while growing in the dish and we can therefore use them to both understand why particular patients have epilepsy and to screen for effective anti-seizure medications. We are currently investigating whether these brain organoid-based predictions will then next translate into more effective and more targeted treatments that will better control the seizures in these patients. If we are right this could be a game changer.
What do you feel would greatly improve epilepsy care currently in Queensland?
A partnership model between patients, patient advocacy groups, clinicians, researchers and government that aims at empowering epilepsy patients, improving epilepsy awareness and increasing funding for research into more effective treatments.
Where would you most like to travel?
Switzerland and anywhere else with great ski slopes.
What is your favourite food?
Japanese, sushi, ramen.
Describe your most embarrassing moment?
While a bit too enthusiastically congratulating a winner of a major award at an official dinner I managed to knock over a full glass of red wine over the white shirt of the poor fellow while sitting at the main table in front of at least 400 aghast onlookers. To his credit he proceeded to the podium to give his acceptance speech undeterred, but I wanted to dig a hole and disappear.
What is your favourite book/author?
Cugel the Clever (aka The Eyes of the Overworld) by Jack Vance. Greg Bears Blood Music is great too.
Who is the most famous person you have ever met? Or who would you like to meet?
The Dalai Lama once but only fleetingly. I would love to have dinner with the neuroscientist/atheist philosopher Sam Harris.
What genres of music do you like listening to/favourite song?
Tom Waits, the Cure and Joy Division and other boring old stuff according to my 15-year-old daughter and 18 year old son, but they are trying to educate me.
Do you have any interesting hobbies you would like to tell us about?
I love playing tennis and to go hiking, nothing exceptionally interesting or special I am afraid.