Alumnus of the Month: Lars A Akslen
«Seek international experiences !» recommends CCBIO Director Lars A. Akslen to the students of today.
What do you remember best from your student days at the University of Bergen?
A lot happened in my life during that period. It was motivating to acquire deep knowledge within the field I had selected. I also initiated research in the team of the legendary Swedish anatomy professor John-Gunnar Forsberg. Very stimulating! The social setting at the medicine classes was more intimate compared to the other faculties, and friendships and contacts were formed for life. I moved from Ålesund to Bergen and experienced a larger city with more cultural events. Music was and is a favorite!
What has been most important for you regarding the education you have taken?
It is important to perform practical work for today's patients as a pathologist, by examining cancer tissue samples and provide a basis for good treatment. In addition, research has been important, and it is satisfying to know that I can help expand the knowledge within my field.
Are there specific aspects of your education that have been particularly useful to you, seen in retrospect?
I decided to specialize in pathology (the study of diseases). This is a major medical field. By choosing an academic focus, previous learning will be used to acquire new knowledge. This is an endless cycle.
Later, as president of the Norwegian Society of Pathology, I have been able to influence the conditions of the field and how it works in the health services.
Over the years, I have become more interested in history and especially the persons and scientific environments which have changed the fields. I have a better recollection of meeting knowledgeable and committed teachers during my studies, rather than details from different lectures. This stimulates our reflection on how discoveries are made, and this should also be discussed in medical school.
Do you have three pieces of good advice to the students of today?
That would have to be the following:
- Focus on learning the basic knowledge the best way possible while you are a student, and use the teachers more actively.
- Seek international experiences and contacts either during your studies or later.
- Don’t get too one-tracked, have multiple interests and pursue these in addition to your studies.
CCBIO is working on cancer biomarkers and targeted therapy, but what exactly are cancer biomarkers and what do they tell us?
A cancer biomarker is a hallmark of cancer cells that say something about how they behave. There might for example be patterns of alterations in genes and proteins. We often call them "the fingerprints of the tumors". Good cancer biomarkers can tell if patients will benefit from a particular type of treatment.
One example is the protein marker HER2, which is analyzed in a microscope, and found in some patients with breast cancer. When this marker is present in the tumor, the patient can be treated with drugs that block signals controlled by this marker in cancer cells, and the growth of the tumor will slow down. Another example which CCBIO has done quite a lot of research on is the protein marker Axl, which shows us that the cancer cells will grow more aggressively. A drug that can block this has been developed in Bergen by BerGenBio, and there are great hopes for this new biomarker and for the drug that blocks it.
How do you use this information to create new cancer therapy?
Each cancer is unique and requires tailored treatment. Biomarkers help to direct this treatment to the right patients and prevent over-treatment. They also provide knowledge of novel ways to treat tumors by detecting signal circuits that can be blocked in cancer cells.
Can you briefly sum up CCBIO’s most important findings?
We have found that the tumor's supporting tissue, the microenvironment around the cancer cells, is of significant importance of whether the tumor will become aggressive, and new treatment is often a combination of blocking both the cancer cells and the supporting tissue at the same time.
What are the future plans for your research, and what is your final goal?
The final goal is twofold: understand the tumors better, and then contribute to better diagnostics and more targeted treatment. We also do research on ethics and economics: what principles should society have for the prioritization and funding of expensive cancer treatment. Costly therapy is provided to those who can benefit from it, and this is where the biomarkers come in as a tool to direct treatment.
This field of research is rapidly expanding. The challenge ahead will be to handle huge amounts of data from thousands of projects, and filter out essential knowledge. At the same time, we must not forget the needs and challenges of the individual patient.
It is important to pursue more innovation and industrial development through research. The BerGenBio company is a good example of how this can succeed locally, but we still have great potential for more initiatives in Bergen.