Michael Bogdan Mărgineanu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London and head of studies at the Faculty of Medicine, UMF “Victor Babeș” Timișoara. He completed his doctoral studies in molecular neuroscience at KAUST in Saudi Arabia and founded Biomentorhub in 2020. He has participated in research projects in Switzerland, USA, UK, Ireland, Austria, Germany and Romania. He is an alumnus of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings (2018).
Specialized in cancer neuroscience, Michael plans to develop a mentor hub, BiomentoHub, to stimulate and support research in Romania and for Romanians in the diaspora, so that he can make a difference in the field of research.
He is organizing in London for the Romanian scientific diaspora and the scientific community in Romania, 4BiOMed, focused on bioentrepreneurship.
Michael, if you want to tell us about you, where you were born in Romania, a little bit about your education background here in Romania, and also the one abroad?
I was born in Resita, Caras-Severin. I completed all my schooling in Timisoara with one exception, one year of high school (11th grade) in the US, where I received a scholarship to study at St. Francis High School in Louisville, Kentucky. I have pursued my bachelor studies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology in Bremen, Germany. Afterwards, I decided to continue my studies in molecular and cell biology in Saudi Arabia at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, where I completed both my masters and PhD studies in the group of Prof. Pierre Magistretti.
What is your main specialization now?
Cancer neuroscience. I am currently pursuing this very exciting emerging research area as a postdoctoral fellow at the Francis Crick Institute in London. I work on tackling one of the most aggressive cancer types with a 5-year survival rate below 7%, small cell lung cancer.
What specific programs have you developed, what are your underway projects? Are they related to your doctoral studies in molecular neuroscience?
At this moment, we are focusing on better understanding the specifics of the communication language between neuroendocrine cancer cells in small cell lung cancer. They are very similar to neurons and the way they communicate with each other resembles the network-like organization of neurons. We are characterizing this using advanced molecular biology tools and bioimaging techniques. It also involves a lot of image analysis and we take advantage of the latest AI-based software tools.
In terms of how this is related to my doctoral studies, there is an interesting connection indeed to what I do now. I am looking at the cooperation between different cancer cell subtypes that resemble neurons and astrocytes, which I have studied during my PhD.
What is molecular neuroscience consisting of and where does it stand in the future of medicine?
Molecular neuroscience is a neuroscience branch that employs the most advanced molecular biology techniques to characterize the structure and function of the nervous system. It is very exciting to do this now, when so many advanced tools exist, in fact no experiment idea seems impossible anymore. We are able to move to a very high resolution and gain a lot of data from our experiments, helping us to better understand how the nervous system is involved in the development and progression of cancer, a connection that was not much studied previously, due to technical limitations which are now overcome. Apart from cancer, molecular neuroscience allows us to progress quickly in understanding the pathophysiology of neurological disorders and discover new therapeutic targets, and it provides us with many other research avenues.
What prospects are from this perspective in the fight against cancer?
There are three main directions of research in cancer neuroscience. The first one looks at direct nerve-cancer cell interactions in the tumor microenvironment. The second one looks at systemic neural-cancer interactions, for example distant effects of the central nervous system (for example the brain) on tumors in the periphery. This long-distance communication both directly and indirectly (by acting on the immune system) can influence cancer development and progression. At last, the third main direction looks at the effect of cancer therapies on the nervous system, there are side effects during chemotherapy that lead to cognitive impairment, peripheral neuropathy, affecting severely the quality of life of cancer patients. I would also add psychoneuroimmunology as a very interesting area of research, bringing psychology into the picture as well.
I know you founded Biomentorhub in 2020. What is it exactly? How you came up with this idea and what are the hub’s short and medium-term goals?
Biomentorhub is a youth-based non-profit, non-governmental organization, aiming to connect young Romanian researchers in the biosciences and medicine fields, from the diaspora with those who are currently established in Romania but had a research experience abroad and are familiar with the way modern molecular biology research is conducted at the highest level. We wish to empower such researchers to generate collaborative projects, to extend their activities in Romania and most importantly to serve as mentors for the younger generation who need an encouragement to pursue this career path that is not an easy and straight-forward one. Biomentorhub also aims to help popularize research in these fields in Romania and engage in science communication activities.
How is research standing right now in Romania? Light-years from the one abroad I presume. What needs to be done for the community of Romanian doctors and researchers? Everyone knows we have a skilled and gifted talent pool, but most of them go abroad to work and undergo projects.
Romania still offers very few opportunities for molecular-based bioscience research. The issue is that the way research is done in biosciences and medicine changed extremely fast in the last 20 years, and in particular at a very fast pace in the last 10 years. The administrative and management aspects linked to this type of research did not adapt fast enough. In countries that heavily invest in research and innovation, they chose to build new research centers from scratch, as they realized it will be difficult to adapt the current infrastructure and the way it is managed.
Now a lot of emphasis is placed on collaboration. The new working spaces abroad are designed to foster collaboration and give you access to a wide range of techniques that you need to keep the pace. So we need more investment in collaborative spaces with excellent infrastructure. And a critical mass of Romanian researchers from abroad to return at the same time and to work together. They want to keep up the fast pace and focus all their attention on research, not on other bureaucratic aspects that slow many researchers down in Romania. At the institutes where I had the opportunity to work they put a lot of hard thinking into how can we maximize the time researchers spend to do research, and what is the most effective way admin personnel can provide support. It is true there is also more funding for job functions such as communication, logistics, etc., so they afford to have large admin teams.
So in the end it is about an ecosystem that has to be nurtured and about focusing on people, I feel that the attention in Romania was centered until more recently mostly on buying new equipment, but that is just a factor in this whole equation. I will insist on this: unless investments are focused on supporting the integration of a critical mass of researchers ideally in spaces created by design for them and on connecting multiple infrastructures nurturing collaboration, it would be very difficult to make a real large improvement and catch up with the most advanced nations.
I know you are preparing an event in London for the Romanian scientific community. Tell us more about it.
The event in London, 4BiOMed, aims to bring together Romanian researchers in the biosciences and medicine fields together with three other professional categories: medical doctors, tech specialists and business development specialists. It is a concept focused on people, as highlighted before it is the key element in developing successful projects. The main topic is bioentrepreneurship but we also aim to connect them to professional opportunities in Romania in the industry. For any successful research-based startup in the healthcare space nowadays each core founding team must consist of a researcher, a medical doctor, a tech specialist and someone focused on commercial development. So we hope to facilitate match-making among these categories and to foster collaboration for projects that can be developed in Romania. We also target existing entrepeneurs that we want to encourage to extend their activities in Romania. It all relates to the critical mass that we need to have to make an actual change back home. I think that there are many Romanian professionals who would like to go back for personal life reasons, but they also need to be happy professionally and we hope to help in this direction of catalysing projects and collaborations that can translate in new exciting opportunities.