Alumni of the month: Lars A. Akslen
Get international experience! The leader for Centre for Cancer Biomarkers (CCBIO), Lars A. Akslen, advises today’s students to go abroad.
What do you remember from your university days at UiB?
At that time, it was a lot going on. It was motivating to acquire knowledge within a chosen field. I had also started researching with the renowned Swedish anatomy professor John-Gunnar Fosberg. It was very stimulating! The environment at the Faculty of Medicine was much more intimate that the one at campus “Høyden”, so friendships and contacts were established for life there. I moved from Ålesund to Bergen and experienced a larger city with greater culture life. Music was and is a favorite!
What has been the most important thing for you with your academic background?
I chose to specialize in pathology (disease studies). This is a medical major and you make use of the knowledge from all fields. By choosing an academic focus, experiences from th studies will be used to acquire new knowledge. This is an endless cycle. Later, as the leader of the Norwegian Society of Pathology, I have been able to influence the terms of the subject and how it works in health services.
Over the years, I have become more interested in history and the people and professional cultures that have changed the subject. I remember meeting knowledgeable and committed teachers, rather than details from different subjects. All this stimulates reflection on the subjects’ inner dynamics and development. This should be important also during the studies!
What is your best advice for today’s students?
That would be the following:
- Focus on gaining basic knowledge while you are a student, and use the teachers more actively.
- Seek out international experience and contacts either during your studies or later.
- Do not be stuck in a one-track mind, but have diverse interests and cultivate these in addition to your studies.
CCBIO works with cancer markers and tries to find targeted methods for treating cancer, but what are cancer markers really and what do they tell us?
A cancer marker is a hallmark of cancer cells that says something about how they would behave, for example, there may be patterns in genes and proteins. We would like to call them “the fingerprints of the tumors”. Good cancer markers can tell if the patients will benefit from a particular type of treatment.
One example is the protein marker HER2, which is analyzed in microscopes and found in some patients with breast cancer. When this marker is present in the tumor, the patient can be treated with medicines that block the signals the marker controls in the cancer cells, thus the growth of the tumor slows down. Another example, CCBIO has researched is the protein marker Axl, which tells is the cancer cells grow more aggressively. BerGenBio, a firm located in Bergen, has developed medicine that can block this, and there are great hopes for this new biomarker and the drug that blocks it.
How do you use this information to create new treatment methods?
Each cancer tumor is unique and needs tailor-made treatment. Biomarkers help manage this treatment to the right patients and prevents excessive treatment. They also provide knowledge of several ways to treat the tumors by detecting new signal circuits that can be locked within the cancer cells.
Where does the research go on and what is their final goal?
The final goal is twofold: to understand the tumors better, and then contribute to better diagnostics and treatment that is more accurate. We also do research on ethics and economy: what principles should the society have for prioritizing and funding expensive cancer treatment.
This field of research is expanding rapidly. The challenge ahead will be to handle the enormous amount of data from thousands of projects, and filter out essential knowledge. At the same time, one must not forget the needs and challenges of the individual patient.
It is important to think that research should lead to more innovation and industrial development. The company of BerGenBio is a good example of how this can be a success at a local level, but we still have great potential for more initiatives in Bergen.