Q&A with Dr. Lars Steinmetz
By Matt Wilsey, Featuring Dr. Lars Steinmetz
1.) NGLY1 is a global team. Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Munich, Germany, then moved to California at age 4, moved to Switzerland when I was 7, and then to New Jersey when I was 16. Now I run one integrated lab that spans two leading institutions, Stanford University in California, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany.
2.) How did you get into medicine and how did you end up at EMBL & Stanford?
I first decided to become a scientist when I was 4, inspired by my father who at the time was a postdoc at Caltech. Throughout my primary and high school time, my interest in science only grew, leading me to pursue science as a career. As an undergraduate, I studied Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale and, eager to start my Ph.D., graduated a year early to begin Ph.D. studies in Genetics at Stanford. After my Ph.D., I applied for and received a grant from the NIH at the same time that EMBL offered me a position. This allowed me to study the biology of genomes in both locations.
3.) How did you select your particular area of focus?
When I finished Yale in 1997, the genome sequence of the first eukaryotic organism (baker’s yeast) had just been completed. An exciting new area arose called genomics to study what all this sequence in genomes meant. A new technology developed at Stanford called microarrays allowed us to look at the whole yeast genome all at once. I was immensely excited to participate in the birth of the field of genomics.
4.) What attributes are you looking for when taking on a new project?
It needs to be at the cutting edge of what is possible, provide an opportunity for breakthrough, and have transformative effects on science and society in the long run.
5.) What intrigues you the most when it comes to NGLY1 mechanics?
The opportunity to work so closely with the patients and their families, and to have them play such an influential role in shaping our research is special to this project. It’s a pleasure working with someone as passionate and progressive as the family. Having that personal connection to the research, meaning the lovely children, keeps the project constantly inspiring. This project is an exciting initiative that could very well transform how disease research will be carried out in the future. I hope that it’s a prelude of things to come in personalized medicine.
6.) What is one thing people would be surprised to know about your daily work with NGLY1?
I think that a unique aspect of our team is that we bring together diverse scientific approaches that proceed around the clock. We’ve got a great interdisciplinary group that integrates wet lab and computational techniques to dissect NGLY1 biology and search for therapeutic strategies. The benefit of having labs on two continents is that our NGLY1 research never sleeps: when our Stanford scientists end their day, our Heidelberg scientists start their day, and vice versa.
7.) What is the biggest challenge you face in your research today?
The funding climate has changed and there is an increased administrative burden on scientists. This takes time away from projects.
8.) What trends in medicine are you most excited about?
Genomics is transforming medicine and allowing it to be more predictive, preventative and personalized. We’re hopeful that this will allow us to predict disease onset before symptoms arise and thereby maintain wellness rather than treat disease. These developments will also allow us to tailor healthcare to the genetic makeup and environmental exposure unique to us all – to offer personalized medicine based on millions of data points. These are big changes that will empower people to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to their health, and the benefits for all of society will be huge.
9.) What do you think is going to bring us closer to a cure?
Understanding the biology of NGLY1 – that is, the processes the gene affects and is affected by – will be tremendously important. There may be drugs already out there that can be repurposed for NGLY1 treatment, and we plan to explore this possibility. In addition, collecting comprehensive data from NGLY1 patients should also inform our search for therapeutic strategies.
10.) How do you unwind after work?
I enjoy cycling in the woods, taking a swim outdoors, and when I have a bit more time I enjoy adventure sports like surfing, kite surfing and snowboarding.
11.) What is your favorite science or medical book that is approachable for our donors and followers who are mostly non-scientists?
As a kid, I very much enjoyed reading “The Double Helix” by James Watson as it captures the excitement inherent in scientific research in a way that I think would be accessible to a variety of audiences.