Ola Hermanson, PhD


Norrköping, Sweden

Current Residence
Södermalm, Stockholm, Sweden

Graduate Degree
PhD in neurobiology, Linköping University, Sweden

Current Position
Associate Professor, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

Postgrad work:
University of California, San Diego (UCSD), La Jolla, CA, USA

What is the current focus of your research?

My long-term goal, more or less seriously, is to clone my own brain. Such a “silly” goal, however, results in a lot of serious questions, and our focus is to have an integrative approach to study neural development and cellular events such as differentiation, proliferation, death, senescence, autophagy, etc. through molecular events such as transcription and chromatin modifications. 

After having defined quite specific roles for major transcriptional regulatory complexes in (cortical) neural stem cells, we are now linking well-characterized DNA-binding transcription factors in cortical development, such as Pax6 and FoxP2, to specific transcriptional complexes and chromatin modifying proteins. 

We are further very interested in how such transcriptional regulation of differentiation and development is linked to microenvironment and metabolism, and we also include biomedical engineering in our studies – bioprinting, for example. 

In an on-going study, we have identified a polymer, p-HTMI, that specifically detects stem cell-like cells in glioblastoma multiforme, and our current studies aim at elucidating the mechanisms underlying this as well as the possibility to develop this finding into a complementary tool in fluorescence-guided surgery of glioblastoma.

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

I have no idea why I became a scientist, as my father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all fire chiefs, but I wanted to become a scientist all my life, and it is still my dream job. I got my first microscope when I was eight, put my father’s camera on it and photographed everything I could put on a microscope slide.

After med school and a PhD in neuroanatomy, I went for postdoctoral training with Michael G. Rosenfeld at UCSD, and at the time, he had a collaboration with Ron McKay – then at NIH – so I got to learn the extremely efficient rat cortical neural stem cell system of the McKay lab. And we have used that until recently. Currently, almost all our experiments are on hiPSC-derived neural progenitors, but I still have a crush on the rat neural stem cell system. It is very versatile.

How do you spend your free time?

Like many scientists, I work and travel quite a lot, so when I have some true free time, I prefer spending it with my fiancé and her son on Södermalm, Stockholm [the southern island of Stockholm]. I am an old wannabe-hipster and love art galleries, unknown rock bands (and brag about them), coffee, good bread, craft beer, and good Scotch – and Södermalm happens to be just the right place in the world for that. Other places I love are of course San Diego but also Tokyo, London (UK), Vancouver, and Toronto, and I try always to have a trip booked to at least one of those places to look forward to.

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

Not sure it is such a surprise anymore, but like many scientists, I have and have had a career in music. I ran my own record label and then became A&R at Polygram/Universal in Sweden, and signed a couple of quite successful bands, including the Cardigans that had a number one hit world-wide with Lovefool in 1997-98. 

I also play in my own band, Sonic Surf City, and while not being as famous, we regularly tour Europe and other countries, and we did pursue a quite successful tour in Japan in summer 2014. I write the songs, so although the band rather looks like “a scientist backed up by the Ramones”, they can’t fire me yet, hehehehe… 

I am very much into popular culture and have organized art shows, workshops, concerts, etc. all my adult life, and I like to learn what I like, so to speak. Thus, when I was into crosswords, I started making crosswords and could publish a few. And I love cartoons so I tried to learn that too. I got some published, but to my great sadness, I will never become that Pulitzer-awarded cartoonist I dreamt to become… I guess I have to stay with my music career for now at least.

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

I love Södermalm. It has an extremely high quality of living with all the best restaurants, coffee shops, bars and museums just outside the door, and I have a hard time seeing myself living anywhere else in the world. 

Karolinska Institutet is big, almost a bit too big for Sweden, but when it comes to specifically stem cell research and regenerative medicine, in parallel with a long tradition in neuroscience, cancer and biochemistry, it is one of the best research environments in the world. Very much thanks to people like Urban Lendahl, we have been successful in creating a truly synergistic atmosphere and considering our levels of grants and Stockholm being quite far from the “center of it all”, the level of publications and also in translational research to innovation and clinics, is outstanding. I am truly blessed to be part of this research environment.

What do you gain from your membership with the ISSCR?

I have been an ISSCR member since almost the beginning. Since 6-7 years back, the annual meeting is the number one international conference for my lab. I find the resources on the homepage to be invaluable – for a while, I was the official “stem cell ombudsman” at Karolinska Institutet (now, if the stem cells need one, I’m there for them) and was bombarded with questions regarding international policies, definitions, and guidelines, and the ISSCR homepage* was then very helpful.

I think it can develop even more, but along with the truly spectacular development of the annual meeting, I think ISSCR as a policy-making structure and a true participant in the extremely urgent and necessary discussions – for example regarding the balance of ethics and patient need – can make a true difference.

*[editor's note: please see the newly updated CloserLookatStemCells.org that helps patients and their families make informed decisions about stem cell treatments, clinics and their health.]


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