29 April 2019

Luis Arnes Perez, New Group Leader, in an Interview to DanStem Editorial Board Members


Luis Arnes Perez is the newly appointed Junior Group Leader at DanStem. Jan Messling and Kata Krizic from the DanStem Editorial Board interviewed Luis to hear about his research, his first impressions of the DanStem and BRIC where his research group will be located, and about establishing a group.

By PhD students Jan Messling and Kata Krizic

What motivated you to start your independent research and why did you choose Copenhagen?

I have always been passionate about scientific research I find much personal satisfaction training students and postdocs, managing scientific research projects and communicating the science that I am passionate about to the academic and non-scientific public. Overall, I think that working in academic research is a unique environment of curiosity, creativity, and collegiality and where I want to be.

My decision to move to Copenhagen was completely driven by the science at DanStem and BRIC. Coming from a background in pancreas development and pancreatic cancer, I expect to bridge the outstanding research in development and cancer biology at both Centres. The collegiality and reach scientific environment at the Centres and in the Copenhagen area is the perfect setting to develop my research program. I cannot imagine a better place to launch my independent career.

What was your first reaction when you found out you got the position?

It was certainly exciting. I was looking for an interdisciplinary scientific environment where basic research, biotechnology, and clinical laboratories interact to develop better diagnosis and therapeutic approaches for human disease. Danstem and BRIC are all of these. Besides, they have outstanding research facilities, international projection, and strong educational programs, which will allow me to grow as a junior group leader.

Have you always known that you wanted to start your own group?

Yes, my desire of becoming a Group Leader has continued to grow over the years during my graduate and postdoctoral studies. Driven by curiosity, I have always been exploring new research directions that could eventually lead me to independence. Certainly, science did not always go the way I anticipated, and there were some difficult moments. However, every now and then I had a result that “makes sense”, and, in my opinion, a magic moment in science that pushed me forward to pursue an academic career. I always wanted to start a group where all members are allowed to think out loud. That is the environment where I always wanted to work, and DanStem and BRIC at the University of Copenhagen gave me the opportunity to make it happen. 

During your work experience, did you have any particular result or ‘eureka moment’ that has stuck with you?

My work has been focusing on understanding the transcriptional regulation of cell fate in pancreas development and disease in vivo. There have been a couple of moments when we have the certainty that we have identified a gene that when deleted induce a change in cell fate or physiological effect Those have been very exciting moments.

One particular eureka moment was when we first did a βlinc1-long noncoding RNA (lncRNA) knockout and detected 50% reduction in β cells in those animals. That was really exciting because the approach to do that was very risky. We were certain about the region that we want to delete, but the field of lncRNAs was still in its infancy, so it was a bit “bold decision” to do that.

What is the biggest challenge for maintaining your personal motivation when you are about to tackle a difficult research question?

I believe that as a scientist you need an inner drive to overcome particularly difficult obstacles in research. Scientists face difficult questions on a day-to-day basis, and therefore it important is to keep being passionate about your research.

What are the directions that you want to take with your future research?

Overall, I would like to understand the mechanisms controlling cellular plasticity in pancreas development and cancer. I want to mainly focus on the non-coding regulatory elements, such as for example long non-coding RNAs and study their role in these mechanisms in vitro as well as in vivo. In addition to that, I’d like to examine the therapeutic potential of cellular plasticity in pancreatic cancer.

You have been working on the field of pancreas development and cancer field for many years now. Have you seen recent developments that will have a big impact on the future development of the field?

It is becoming clear that the tumor undergoes phenotypic adaptations to proliferate and evolve in a hostile microenvironment, and relapse in response to treatment. At the stage of diagnosis, cancer cells have an incredible amount of cellular plasticity. Uncovering the mechanisms regulating this cellular plasticity will be exciting. My guess is that we will see exciting new developments targeting molecular subtypes and phenotypic adaptations in pancreatic cancer.

If you could have the answer to one question that has been troubling you about pancreas development and the regulation of lineage specification, what would that be?

I am interested in understanding the transcriptional regulation of cellular differentiation, identity, and maintenance. In particular, I want to know how are these processes regulated by a subset of long non-coding RNAs, which are located in the genomic vicinity of lineage-specific transcription. Despite the general assumption, cellular differentiation is not unidirectional. In the pancreas, genetic susceptibility or environmental cellular stress erode mature markers of differentiation and result in increased cellular plasticity. Although it constitutes a normal process of tissue regeneration, loss of cellular differentiation is co-opted by oncogenes to transform the epithelium and endows cells with enhanced growth, resistance to therapy and invasive capabilities in cancer. Therefore it is of utmost importance to understand how cellular identity is regulated in homeostasis and disease. It is now clear that long non-coding RNAs regulate cell-type specific regulatory networks. Besides, we showed that they are aberrantly expressed in disease and associated with genomic traits of pancreatic cancer; however, the mode of action in most cases is mostly unknown. Do they regulate cell-type specific regulatory networks? Are they involved in the local conformation of the chromatin? Do they orchestrate intrachromosomal interaction of lineage-specific genes? And finally, can we translate this knowledge into better diagnostic and therapeutic opportunities in pancreatic cancer? These are some of the questions that I would like to know the answer.

Let’s move outside the lab – what do you like to do in your spare time in Copenhagen? How does it feel moving to Denmark?

My family and I are moving from New York. We are excited about raising our children in the Danish educational system. My wife works in early education, and she always talked about how Danish education was the best to raise independent, confident, and respectful children. We loved to bike everywhere when we lived in Manhattan. Moving to a city where your means of transportations is your bike it was kind of ideal for us. Of course, we are a little worried about the cold climate and grey days, but we are also excited to be closer to our family in Spain. After nine years in the United States, we are thrilled to be back in Europe and enjoy the diversity and richness of European countries.

What are your hobbies outside of science that other people might find surprising?

Sailing is a big passion of mine. I love being out in the water with friends being pushed by the wind. It is a unique opportunity to enjoy the present. There is no place to go in a small boat, right? Besides, sailing, especially in rough weather, generates fundamental dynamics in team building and leadership, which I find useful for other aspects of my life. I have already discovered sailing clubs in Copenhagen, and I’d definitely like to go out sailing here when summer comes around.

Is there anything you would like to have known when you were a PhD student?

I think I will go through the same mistakes, there are some things you just have to go through and learn from it. But I would have done data science sometime earlier. We are heading towards the moment in science where the quantitative analysis of a large amount of data is going to be very important and having those skills is crucial.

Do you have any advice to give to early career researchers?

One piece of advice that I would give to young students is to be as curious as you can. Try to read about research in different fields and try to see how research is approached in different fields and see if you can apply some of these approaches to your research.  Additionally, I also think that once you have a solid project going on in the lab it is important to strengthen other skills outside of the lab such as for example communication, outreaching or preparing presentations for a different audience. I think these are the two main pieces of advice that I’d like to give to young scientists – be curious and systematic on your work.

Arnes group home page