Mark Petronczki studied biology at the University of Vienna and did his diploma research at the lab of Jürgen Knoblich, then at the IMP. From 2000 to 2004, he was a PhD Student at Kim Nasmyth’s lab and from 2005 to 2007 a postdoc in Jan-Michael Peters’ group. From there, Mark went on to become a Junior and later Senior Group Leader at Cancer Research UK (CRUK) in London. Since 2014, he is heading several labs focusing on drug discovery and cancer cell signalling at the BI Regional Center Vienna.
Mark, you were a student in Jürgen Knoblich’s and Kim Nasmyth’s labs and a postdoc under Jan-Michael Peters. How did this time influence your work as a researcher?
I spent almost eight years working at IMP - far longer in one place than generally recommended for a scientific career. In my defense, during these years I worked on three different model organisms (flies, yeast and human cells) in three different labs. Before joining Kim’s lab as a PhD student, I completed my Diploma work in the lab of Jürgen Knoblich. I was very fortunate to work with three fantastic PIs, Jürgen, Kim and Jan, early in my career at an excellent institute. I am very grateful for having had this opportunity and for continuous support of my previous supervisors.
Kim and Jan had slightly different management styles and approaches to supervision; I learnt a lot from both. What was very important in both labs, was that even as young and naïve PhD students and later as postdocs, many of us were given full freedom and independence to come up with our own projects, pursue them and handle the writing and submission of papers. This way you were forced to learn how to conduct your research independently at a relatively early stage.
How would you describe the essence of the IMP?
The intensity of research, the atmosphere of excitement as well as the fun in doing research are important factors in what made and continues to make the IMP special. Although I had the opportunity to visit many research institutes and university departments since leaving the IMP, I don’t think I have ever really experienced the aforementioned aspects to the same degree.
Can you recall a memorable event during your time at the IMP?
There were many memorable moments, scientifically and otherwise, for me at the IMP. Witnessing the discovery of histone methyl transferases in the Jenuwein lab next door to Kim’s lab on the first floor or a single issue of Cell featuring three research articles on cohesin from IMP labs.
One evening in late 2005, after having more than appropriately celebrated the end of my National Service that day, I went back to the IMP to pick up a few things and ran into Jan, in whose lab I was supposed to start as a postdoc very soon thereafter. I don’t recall exactly how the conversation went and I don’t know whether Jan recalls this event, but I felt very lucky and grateful to have been allowed to join his lab after this encounter.
However, there were also extremely sad moments, such as the deaths of Kirsten Rabitsch, a close friend and colleague in the Nasmyth lab, and his girlfriend Katharina in 2006.
You went on to establish your own group at CRUK. How were work and life different in London?
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is a very professionally run and highly successful non-profit organization. After completing the interview rounds for Group Leader positions, we decided that CRUK and the London area were the best match for our family in terms of private life and science. I set up my lab at London Research Institute (LRI) of CRUK (which has now become part of The Francis Crick Institute). We lived just north of London in a small but picturesque town and loved it. London and the South East of England are very welcoming places for foreigners in our experience.
Working for a charity focusing on cancer was a new experience for me as I became involved in outreach and fund raising activities, meeting patients and survivors - a humbling experience for a scientist. Organising daily life and childcare was certainly more challenging being away from family. My lab was located at the Clare Hall Laboratories, the smaller LRI site with about 10 to 12 labs and a strong focus on chromatin biology, DNA repair and the cell cycle. The LRI in general and Clare Hall in particular were a fantastic place to set up a lab, with very supportive and eminent Senior Group Leader colleagues as well as strong core support and funding – similar to the IMP in many respects.
What made you come back to Vienna?
Although we had established a successful scientific programme in the UK and I was promoted to Senior Group Leader in 2013, I decided that I would like to develop in a new direction. It was important to me to remain closely connected to biomedical research in the future, but also to learn about how to move scientific discoveries closer to clinical applications. The job opportunity at BI Oncology in Vienna was an excellent match for achieving both, and I do not regret the move away from academia. The last three years at BI involved a fairly steep learning curve that has not yet started to flatten. Closing the lab at CRUK was sad and emotional but with the help of colleagues and the institute leadership we managed to find excellent new positions for all members of my lab.
What do you consider to be your biggest scientific achievements?
Moving twice into new lab spaces at Clare Hall that my lab inherited from Nobel laureates - Tim Hunt and Thomas Lindahl - was maybe more an honourable coincidence than an achievement.
One area that I feel my lab at CRUK made important contributions to is cytokinesis. Our work elucidated how microtubule-associated factors engage with the plasma membrane to promote cell division. We still do not have a full mechanistic understanding of how the cell division is placed at the equator in animal cells. In my opinion, this remains a very important question to be answered in basic cell biology. In my new role at BI, making scientific discoveries is still very important. However, the ambition to translate these discoveries into new treatment options for patients is at least as important.
Can you tell us about your current and future projects at the RCV and how they are connected to the IMP?
In the Cancer Cell Signalling Department at BI Vienna, our work focuses on identifying new approaches and targets to treat cancer. Areas of strong interest include targeting oncogene addiction and exploiting vulnerabilities of specific cancers. One of the most thrilling aspects of my current position is that we are able to convert scientific discoveries into drug discovery programmes that are pursued in multidisciplinary teams.
The strong expertise and high quality of scientists at Boehringer Ingelheim RCV across the different disciplines makes this challenging process an exciting and feasible endeavor. Discovery research in pharmaceutical companies cannot be successful if done in isolation but needs to connect with innovation outside.The IMP with its position at the forefront of innovative basic research is a key collaboration partner for BI. We actively seek interactions and collaborations with IMP partner labs that are mutually beneficial. A number of collaborations with IMP labs are ongoing and we hope to be able to strengthen the interactions further in the future.
The ongoing collaborations include projects focusing on immune-modulation and on defining vulnerabilities of cancers harboring mutations in the cohesin complex. The collaboration on cohesin brought together the translational interest and resources of BI with the complementing expertise of the Zuber and Peters labs in screening technologies and cohesin biology, respectively. This collaboration has already resulted in a recent joint publication on the identification of a novel potential therapeutic target in cohesin mutated cancers [Van der Lelij, Lieb et al., Elife 2017].
Going beyond collaborations, the connection with the IMP and with other Vienna BioCenter institutions allows BI to attract and recruit superbly trained scientists from a strong talent pool.
Industry-based research and basic (academic) research – how would you describe the differences?
Industry-based research and academic research are two sides of the same coin in my opinion. Both sides need each other in order to thrive. Basic research and the development of new therapies strongly benefit from scientists switching from academia to industry and vice versa - and maybe back again. Research in industry often involves multidisciplinary teams that move projects forward with shorter review cycles to meet specific milestones. While the freedom to pursue scientific interests is to a certain extent limited by the ultimate aim of delivering new medicines, the resources available allow scientists to move forward ambitious programmes effectively.
To further promote innovative science at the company, BI is currently launching a Discovery Research global postdoctoral programme for which I am acting as the local coordinator. The attrition rate along the drug discovery and development path is high. Given the odds, one has to be able to enjoy the journey and keep in mind that the goal is worth it. In both academia and industry, a collaborative spirit is essential but possibly even more strongly manifested in industry as more scientists share a common overarching goal.
Interview by Heidemarie Hurtl, published in 2017
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