ASSIGNMENTS. When Anders Oldfors turned 67 in March, he resigned as head of the Institute of Biomedicine. An assignment he has had since 2000. Now life as a post-retirement professor awaits.
“You don’t take on the job as head of the institute to change the world,” Anders Oldfors says, laughing.
He simply wanted to be involved and making decisions in an institute where research teams were free to work and students did well, but without too much control and direction. Anders Oldfors maintains that it is a rather simple perspective, but he’s satisfied.
A lot has happened during Anders’ 18 years as head of the institute. When he started in 2000, it was the small Institute of Laboratory Medicine. Sahlgrenska Academy was created in 2001, and the current six major institutions were formed in 2006. Anders was the deputy head of the Institute of Biomedicine first and then head of the institute.
“The consolidations into major institutions was an incredibly good move. Previously the job as head of institute was mostly administrative. Then the institutions gained enough momentum, and we could concentrate on some of the most important functions we have: good recruitments.”
The whole system is based on the staff that is hired, Anders asserts.
“It should be made up of talented researchers and teachers with a lot of external grants and great social skills who can interact with other researchers, have talented colleagues and excellent contacts,” says Anders.
Pleased to be neighbor with the Faculty of Science
He’s fully aware that the art of attracting these people is based on the institute’s ability to offer an exciting and inspiring research environment with functional laboratories and other premises, with opportunities for collaboration within and among institutions and a number of other qualities. One of the problems today is precisely the lack of premises.
“We can’t recruit major research teams if we don’t have premises,” says Anders, who is well versed in the plans at Sahlgrenska Life, where the vision is translational research environments.
“We’ll have to see about that,” he says, somewhat jaded. “There were plans for similar visions back in the 1990s, but other things intervened.”
What’s quite clear is a coming construction at Medicinareberget, next door to the Institute of Biomedicine, for the Faculty of Natural Sciences, which Anders Oldfors will gladly have as a neighbor. The natural sciences were what first got him to apply for medical school in 1969.
“At that time, the idea of helping or working with sick people is not at all what appealed to me. However, I was extremely interested in science subjects and thought that medical school was the best opportunity to study these.”
Anders had a good contact with one of his teachers, Patrick Sourander, and during postgraduate studies, he was already participating in various research projects as a teaching assistant at Pathology.
“I remained as a research student and publicly defended my doctoral thesis there. After that, I first did my internship after medical school and specialist training in pathology.”
Anders also began working extra with patients at acute primary care centers and discovered that meeting with patients was enjoyable and worthwhile.
“I kept that up until I became head of the institute, when I no longer had time. Now I meet patients once a week when I take biopsies. There’s not as much patient contact when you’re working in the laboratory.”
Postdoc in France
Anders Oldfors did his postdoc at a hospital in Paris. There his eyes were opened to his field of research: diseases of muscle tissues, or myopathy. Thus far, Anders and his team have managed to identify more than ten new diseases of muscle tissues. During the time he has worked as head of the institute, we have not only discovered that defective genes are behind myopathy and a series of other diseases.
“What we’ve done is to find where the fault lies.”
Treatment in the form of gene therapy is still very new, but there are treatments that successfully modify gene expression so that there is an improvement in the impaired functionality. Attempts also are being made to insert healthy genes using viruses through injections into the spinal fluid, for example.
“We are at the beginning of this development and the treatments aren’t very good yet, but they’re getting better and better. It’s great that we can now treat genetic defects and cure patients.”
One area that also has come a long way with this is the institute’s main focus: cancer research. When Anders began as a medical student, nobody knew what caused cancer. Now we know that the fault lies in the cells’ genes, the same as in the case of myopathies.
“Previously the diagnosis was based solely on how the tumor looked under a microscope. Now that we can identify the genetic changes, we can target treatment based on the tumor’s unique fingerprint, which causes a tumor to behave in a certain way. This means that cancer treatment can now be designed more personally based on the needs of the individual patient.”
To many fail exams
The Institute of Biomedicine, like the other institutes, has received an increasing influx of students in recent years. According to Anders Oldfors, a major problem is that many cannot cope with their studies. Previously 10–20 percent of the students failed the exams but now the share is over 40 percent.
“Why is that, and what can we do about it? It is one of the institute’s major challanges to resolve, along with a shortage of premises,” says Anders.
The fact that he no longer heads the institute does not mean that he has stopped working. Having worked 60-hour weeks essentially all of his working life, he intends to continue working to about the same extent.
“The work is more like a lifestyle; I work essentially all the time.”
Despite this he sports a becoming suntan, which he scarcely could have acquired at work.
”That’s right. I went skiing at Italy’s Cervinia recently,” he says with a smile. “And I find time for a tennis match during the week.”
A diagnosis expert
To bear the ultimate responsibility for 250 employees and turnover of SEK 400 million is an assignment he could imagine continuing.
“But that’s not possible under pension rules, and that’s perhaps a good thing. I will, however, continue with my research team as well as teach and work on diagnoses at Sahlgrenska Hospital.”
Diagnoses are Anders’ specialty, and he and pathology colleagues examine tissue and cytology specimens.
“This involves a very large number of examinations per year. Much of the material is then available for research.”
Anders Oldfors looks back on his time as head of the institute with a large measure of happiness and contentment, even if not everything has been the moon and the stars. The institute has recruited several internationally recognized, talented researchers, and external funding has basically doubled during his tenure.
“My goal was not to for us to become the world leader, but we’ve done well.
“And it’s probably no exaggeration to say that the research conducted at the Institute of Biomedicine has made the world a better place.”
TEXT & PHOTOS: ANNA REHNBERG
* On June 1 Sven Enerbäck assumes the position of new head of the institute.