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Konrad Hochedlinger

Konrad Hochedlinger was a master student with Erwin Wagner in 1998/99. Since then, he has become a science star - now running his lab at Harvard University's Stem Cell Institute. 

In a recent article for The Journal of Cell Biology, Konrad Hochedlinger was described by Ruth Williams as “the new kid of nuclear reprogramming”(1). This refers to a much acclaimed breakthrough in stem cell biology which was published in June 2007 and in which Konrad played an important role. Based on the exciting experiments by Takahashi Yamanaka in 2006, he together with the team of Rudolf Jaenisch, succeeded in generating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from skin cells of adult mice.

Transferring a terminally differentiated cell nucleus into an egg cell, that has had its own nucleus removed, wipes away the epigenetic marks of differentiation and allows the nucleus again to code for any cell type. Whether this trick was even possible was a fundamental question of developmental biology until Konrad Hochedlinger, as a Ph.D. student, finally delivered unequivocal proof. Nuclear transfer is one of the most sophisticated and challenging techniques in cell biology. Attempting it as a young PhD student was brave - even his supervisor Rudolf Jaenisch was sceptical and thought it was very risky. Konrad tried it anyway.

Just 32 years old, Konrad has had a remarkable career in science: he already worked on therapeutic cloning in a mouse model, reprogramming cancer nuclei, and the molecular mechanisms controlling stem cell pluripotency. He has now been running his own lab at Harvard University for almost two years.

The close contact to top scientists and the international atmosphere at the institute were inspiring and essential for my career.

Konrad Hochedlinger

When asked how he got started in science, he claims that his sister persuaded him. “She studied biology at the university of Vienna. When I was deciding what to study, I was torn between medicine and biology. My sister told me that biology was really cool and that I should try it out. So it’s my sister’s fault.... as soon as I had my first lecture in genetics, I knew I definitely wanted to continue on that route.”

The next step on that route was the IMP where Konrad did his Master’s thesis. Between July 1998 and July 1999, he was a diploma student in Erwin Wagner’s lab. “Erwin’s lab was where I got exposed to real science for the first time”, Konrad recalls. “The close contact to top scientists and the international atmosphere at the institute were inspiring and essential for my career.”

A fascinating IMP lecture given by Rudolf Jaenisch on the role of epigenetics in cloning and reprogramming drew him to the field of stem cell biology. He applied to Jaenisch’s lab at MIT, obtained funding from the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds (BIF) and started working there as a PhD Student in March 2000.

After completing his doctoral thesis, supervised by Erwin Wagner and defended at the University in Vienna, Konrad stayed on for another three years as a Postdoc. “I knew I wanted to stay in the reprogramming field”, Konrad tells JCB. “At that point, there wasn’t any other lab where I could really learn more. Rudolf’s lab is one of the few that has all of these technologies together. Anything you can think of in mouse genetics or mouse embryology has happened in his lab, whether it’s making mice from embryonic stem cells, making transgenic mice, nuclear transfer, embryonic stem cell biology, studying cancer models, or embryonic development.”

In 2006, Konrad Hochedlinger set up his own lab at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is currently Assistant Professor for Medicine at Harvard Medical School and at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Asked whether he could imagine coming back to Austria, he hesitates. The conditions to do stem cell research in Boston are just too good and some of the best experts in this field are working close by. However, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that some time in the future he might return to Vienna.

1) Journal of Cell Biology 178:7, 2007
2) Der Standard, 9.1.2008

By Heidemarie Hurtl, first published in 2008