Stem Cells in Focus

Member Spotlight on Salvador Aznar-Benitah, PhD

  • 17 April, 2017
Montreal, Canada and Madrid, Spain

Current Residence
Barcelona, Spain

Graduate Degree
Biochemistry and molecular biology from McGill University, Montreal, Canada 

Postgrad work
London Research Institute (Cancer Research, UK)

Current Position
Group Leader, ICREA Researcher, Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) Barcelona, Spain

What is the current focus of your research?

In my lab we aim at identifying and characterizing the mechanisms underlying the function of adult stem cells. When I established my lab in 2007 we mainly focused on studying epidermal stem cells, although in recent years we are also working with stem cells from other tissues such as the mammary gland. I am very interested in understanding how adult stem cells are spatiotemporally regulated, how they communicate with their local and systemic environment, and importantly, how stem cell malfunction contributes to ageing and cancer. This, as you can imagine, makes my lab quite heterogeneous. 

For instance, we have projects focused on studying the temporal function of adult stem cells. Why do stem cells do what they do at specific times of the day? Our work, and that of others, has shown that the function of stem cells is tightly controlled by circadian rhythms, and that this mechanism allows stem cells to save energy and to cope with stress in a very efficient manner. Interestingly, stem cells without a proper circadian rhythm show strong signs of premature ageing, and several projects in my lab are now aimed at understanding this ageing phenotype in detail. I am quite excited about these projects, since we are studying the process of ageing and circadian rhythms in several tissues, allowing us for the first time to identify common and tissue-specific features of adult stem cell ageing. 

Another major interest of my lab is to understand the epigenetic mechanisms that ensure that adult stem cells remain functionally flexible to maintain homeostasis, and to respond to different kinds of stress. We know that some of these mechanisms are perturbed during ageing and cancer, so it has been very interesting to compare their function in the healthy versus the unhealthy states. We combine in vivo models and state of the art genomic techniques to pursue these objectives making these projects challenging but also very exciting. 

Lastly, in recent years and in close collaboration with a team of clinicians at the Hospital Vall D´Hebron in Barcelona, we are developing a large project aimed at studying the molecular mechanisms responsible for the metastatic spread of oral squamous cell carcinomas, as well as to identify better prognostic and therapeutic strategies against this aggressive type of tumor. This project is allowing us to study the process of cancer progression in patient-derived material, and to combine for the first time basic and clinical research in my lab. 

What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?

I have always been interested in science. I remember at school being thrilled with biology and chemistry courses. That said, I also liked literature a lot (and still do), and in fact when I had to choose which undergraduate program I would apply to I doubted for a while whether to apply to biology or literature. In the end I decided to study biochemistry and molecular biology at McGill University, which was one of the best experiences of my life. 

With regards to stem cell research, during my PhD studies I started to get increasingly frustrated with the fact that I was studying cancer but I did not know well how the normal tissue worked. I my opinion this prevented me from fully understanding why cancer cells were behaving aberrantly. This is the time when I started reading about adult stem cells and the emerging concepts of cancer stem cells. I was instantly hooked. I then had, 12 years ago, the great chance to move to London to work in the laboratory of Fiona Watt where I was exposed to and learned about the field of stem cells. Although since then my scientific interests have diversified, the main focus of my research is still stem cells, and I have had the change to witness the amazing advances the field has made. Anyone attending the ISSCR annual meetings would agree that this is an exciting time to work in the field of stem cells.

How do you spend your free time?

I try to spend all my free time with my wife, Carmen, and my two kids, Mateo and Lucia. Mateo is 5 and Lucia 3 so they are plenty of fun but also keep us quite busy! We also spend time with friends enjoying the wonderful variety of food that Barcelona offers.

What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?

I think some of my peers would be surprised to know that I have a very large collection of graphic novels (for those of you interested I strongly recommend anything by Seth, Alan Moore, Michel Rabagliati, Guy Delisle, and my favorite, Chris Ware).

My peers might also be surprised that I have played most of my life in a rock 'n' roll band (I play the guitar). I particularly like songs by The Rolling Stones, M Ward, Led Zeppelin, and of course The Beatles! I am a self-taught player, so perhaps if you would hear me play you might not even recognize I am playing a song by any of these great Bands…

Also, one of my secret passions is to read about the evolution of language, and economy (don´t ask me why…). I am thoroughly enjoying the book series of Freakonomics lately.

What do you like most about living and working where you do?

Barcelona is a great city to live in. Its arquitecture, its cuisine, the mountains, the beach, its people, and how multicultural it is, are all very appealing to my family and me. It is also an easy city to live in. Not too big in size, but still with the feeling of a large metropolis. 

But Barcelona is much more than that. It has a thriving research community (basic and clinical), with a strong commitment to research, and innovation. This was not always the case in the past, but a well-planned investment scheme in recent decades, and its capacity to attract internationally renowned scientists, has made Barcelona a very exciting place to work in as a scientist. For me these things were very important when deciding whether to move to Barcelona to start my own independent research.

What do you gain from your membership with the ISSCR?

The ISSCR is the meeting where we all get the chance to gather and learn about the latest research in our field, and share our own. It is also a great opportunity to interact with my peers socially and scientifically (and let´s not forget a very important thing: to get to see Len Zon dancing at the gala!). Besides the main annual meeting I think the smaller ones with more concise themes are also being very stimulating, and are allowing younger scientists to directly interact with the senior people in the field.