My personal scientific challenge is to understand how cells communicate at the molecular level
Prof. Mgr. Vítězslav Bryja, Ph.D.
Head of the Department of Animal Physiology and Immunology
Department of Experimental Biology, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University
Prof. Mgr. Vítězslav Bryja Ph.D., studied Molecular Biology and Genetics at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University. In his experimental-biological laboratory, Vítězslav focuses on the detection and description of intercellular communication and the possibilities of using this knowledge in the treatment of leukaemia and other types of tumours. He also participates in projects involving students in international cooperation, and is a guarantor of the prestigious multidisciplinary Life Sciences Seminar at MU.
How did you end up in the field of molecular biology?
At elementary school, I studied systematic biology in my free time. In layman's terms, I collected everything that moved. At high school, I studied bird nests as part of my Secondary School Professional Activity (SOČ). At first, I wrote about the birds that made them, but later I started to see what else lived in them. From there, I got into spiders and, thanks to my research, I worked my way up to the national round of SOČ. As a secondary hobby, I was producing birdhouses. I checked what lived in them, counted the eggs and then compiled graphs from the information. Later, I attended the Chemistry Olympiad, which had a big impact on me. Thanks to this, I decided not to follow systematic biology but chose molecular biology instead, which opened up other possibilities for me.
Did the study of molecular biology meet your expectations?
Completely. I got to know new topics, I was really interested in chemical and molecular practice, and I was engaged in my own research when writing my diploma thesis. In basic research, I studied how one protein, the transcription factor, changes a cell’s response. I was able to describe its function by experimentally manipulating lipid metabolism in the same cell. I found that the cell responds differently to stimuli, depending on what is in its surroundings and what is contained in its membrane.
Your research concerns the communication of cells in the human body. Is this a topic that still offers unresolved scientific issues?
Our specialisation has become the study of phenomena at the intercellular level. My task is to find out how the individual cells of which we are composed listen to our body without the need for central control. Cells forming functioning organism perform a number of functions important for survival, and all work together for the benefit of the whole. However, when they get out of control it can lead to problems, with poor cell communication leading to degenerative diseases and tumours.
What is the essence of experimental biology, whose methods you use as a molecular biologist?
In molecular biology, which I deal with, assumptions are verified using a scientific tool, an experiment. For example, I verify the importance of genes for cell function. We use several procedures to "turn on" and "turn off" genes. I always work with a certain hypothesis, but before I can start my research, I have to check whether someone else has already performed the experiment. Then I verify my assumption by physically performing an experiment. When completed, the experiment either refutes or confirms our hypothesis. I am pleased when the experiment confirms something fundamental, which does not happen very often. When we described the signalling of one important protein, we were the first to figure out the reason why it behaves in a certain way. We are increasingly trying to translate our results into practical use. We were pleasantly surprised by our latest results, which demonstrated the blocking of one signalling pathway in leukaemia. In this way, basic research is combined with practical use.
What arguments do you use in experimental science?
We must properly interpret the results of the experiment and choose a reasonable design with added positive and negative internal controls. We work at the microscopic level using indirect methods. To be convincing, the result must be repeated at least three times with verifiable methods and then quantified and statistically evaluated.
Is it possible of transfer your unique knowledge to applied medical research?
When we develop our research to an advanced stage, we pass it on to colleagues from hospitals or private companies that are willing to pay for our know-how and develop it further. In this way, a new diagnostic kit for one type of leukaemia reached the product phase in cooperation with Generi Biotech. At present, in cooperation with colleagues from the Department of Chemistry at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science, we have managed to establish a spin-off company with the support of the MU Technology Transfer Centre, in which a private investor has invested millions of crowns. As there is no way to complete the study up to the drug phase in academia, we believe that this collaboration will take our molecules to the preclinical and clinical research.
In current science, publication of results is important. How would you describe the path from writing an article to publishing it in a prestigious high-impact journal?
Reading scientific material is essential for me. I always do research when writing an article. If I did not know what was happening in my research area, I would not be able to define key issues, which then lead to new discoveries. The professional community would not take us seriously if we did not publish. The higher the quality of the journal, the harder the review process. For example, it is very difficult to publish in an exclusive journal such as Nature. In this case, the content of the article will be evaluated over several rounds of revision by external opponents elsewhere in the world, who will confirm the significance of the article and that the experiments were conducted appropriately. If they disagree with our claims on some points, there are several options for us. We can either give up everything or try to come to terms with the objections, which means new experiments lasting several more months or, in extreme cases, years. Then we'll send a revised version that addresses the requirements of the opponents. If we satisfy all the opponents, our article will be accepted and published. If the work is published in a top journal within a year of its first submission, it can be considered a quick process.
Is teamwork important to you? Are you involved in interdisciplinary cooperation at the faculty level?
Teamwork is essential for me. The complexity of scientific methods based on expert knowledge no longer allows one to conduct research as a single person. We have a network of scientific contacts willing to collaborate, whether in biochemical methodologies or at the level of animal models, which cannot be investigated directly in our laboratory. We cooperate with other departments of the faculty as needed. For example, we have well-established cooperation agreements with the Department of Chemistry at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science, the Centre for Molecular Biology and Gene Therapy at the University Hospital in Brno and the Proteomics Centre of the Laboratory of Functional Genomics and Proteomics, a member of CEITEC. We collaborate with scientists dealing with nuclear magnetic resonance, biologists, computational chemists and computer scientists, as well as physicians from hospitals and other research centres. We often have similar questions but use different methodologies. When we compare our results and the final answers come out the same, it's satisfying.
What is your current topic of research in the field of cell communication?
I am presently interested in the WNT signalling pathway, and especially one of its variants, the non-canonical WNT pathway, which is one of the important pathways that controls the behaviour of cells in our body. One cell, which secretes a protein called WNT, settles on another cell, which has a specific receptor ready for it, and this triggers a certain action. This represents communication between two cells over a short distance, which affects the body locally. A typical example is renewal of the intestinal epithelium, which is replaced once a week. In the pathway that ensures the exchange, new cells are constantly added, but only in the amount that the control signalling pathway allows. There is a level of control in each organ. Only functional variants that can set the signal paths correctly will survive.
The Life Sciences Seminar, for which you are the guarantor, is also multidisciplinary. Can you describe its content?
Life Sciences is a collective term for a group of scientific disciplines that deal with the functioning of living organisms in the fields of biology, biochemistry, structural biology and ecology. It includes a broad concept of nature, animals, plants and microorganisms. Research in these fields now makes use of procedures previously reserved for physics, chemistry and materials sciences, including imaging, microscopy and modelling technologies. We would like to expose students to a broader view of world trends by allowing them to meet world leaders in their fields. Once a week, therefore, we invite a renowned scientist from around the world to Brno. We have managed to promote this seminar so successfully that it is now available for the entire campus. Once a week, we all meet at an informal seminar with colleagues, and thereby fulfil the original vision of the Bohunice University Campus. Sometimes, thanks to the seminar, we find that the topic that we are dealing with in cooperation with foreign universities is already being discussed elsewhere, but we didn't know it because we don’t ‘stick our heads out of the shell’ of our own field.
How does one get involved in international scientific cooperation?
Personally, I try to organise projects such as the Life Sciences Seminar. One of the other projects we are involved in is a cooperation agreement with the Karolinska Institutet (KI-MU project) in Sweden, which is the second-best European university in the field of medicine. We have created an international platform where each project participant, of which there are about ten, has their own trainer in the Czech Republic and Sweden. In Sweden, where I have spent some time, I revived my own contacts and our students can now go on internships there for up to two years. I perceive the KI-MU project, which unfortunately no longer has financial support, as a personal success. The students are enthusiastic about the internship and the Swedish tutors give us feedback praising our students, who will be able to put the methods learned in Sweden into practice when they return here.
Could you describe how the internship works based on your personal connections and scientific contacts?
In order to find a partner laboratory for an internship, it is important to come up with scientific content that is synergistic, i.e. both workplaces benefit from it. Personal trust must be developed and partners must be convinced of our potential. Among other things, our students receive quality basic teaching at the Faculty of Science MU and, at the same time, become motivated as internships represent a great opportunity for them to move forward.
What professional challenges do you face now?
There are several of them, but I will mention the managerial one. By small steps, I am trying to help make the Bohunice University Campus a place with great credit in the scientific world.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin F. Roche