The faculty has invested a lot in me. I want to return to the Czech Republic in the future and pass on the benefits of that investment, says our graduate Stanislav Drápela
Mgr. Stanislav Drápela, Ph.D.
Department of Molecular Oncology, Dr. Ana Gomes Laboratory, Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida, USA
A graduate of the Physiology, Immunology and Developmental Biology of Animals Doctoral study program
A graduate of the Biochemistry Bachelor’s and Master’s degree program
Stanislav Drápela began his studies in biochemistry at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University, in 2011. He successfully completed his Master’s degree in 2016, after which he started his Doctoral studies in animal physiology led by Dr. Karel Souček, focussing on research into tumour biology, particularly malignant prostate disease. After completing his Doctoral studies, he moved to the USA in 2021, where he now works as a postdoctoral fellow at a prestigious comprehensive cancer center, the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. There he focuses on dormant tumour cells, which represent a significant threat and obstacle in successful cancer therapy.
Stanislav Drápela at the Bohunice University Campus. Photo: Irina Matusevich
Right at the beginning, please tell us when you first developed an interest in the natural sciences?
I have always loved nature and been involved in nature protection. However, I certainly didn’t think I would be doing what I do now, and particularly research in tumour biology, when studying high school. I only really became enthusiastic for science when I joined Biochemistry programme at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science. I was excited about the principles; and what made them exciting was the teachers and their way of teaching. And what really got me about biochemistry was the special way that chemistry and biology were combined.
Biochemistry is a field that high school students know little of. What made you so enthusiastic?
Biochemistry is the basis of all life, and I have always been interested in understanding the essence of life from the perspective of natural sciences. In addition, biochemistry allows us to understand diseases; without biochemistry knowledge, we cannot hope to gain an understanding of the disease per se. It was my research and conclusions in these two directions that gradually led me to tumour biology.
Students usually aim to study programmes based on their potential applicability in regard to future employment. Why did you choose biochemistry over any other programmes that university offers?
I originally aimed to get into medicine programme, but was not successful. However, biochemistry represents one of the crucial building blocks of medicine, thus allowing me to do what I enjoy. Another benefit is that biochemistry is interdisciplinary, being used in pure chemistry, pure biology, physiotherapy, genetics, pharmacology, and medicine; therefore has a broad spectra of applications. I also believed that, by studying biochemistry, I will get better foundation for potential transition to other programme. Gradually, however, when I became more involved in my studies and I realized that I am finding everything that wanted in biochemistry by itself.
Do you remember when you first perceived the difference in how subjects are taught in high school and university?
That happened very soon, and I sobered up quickly. I thought that the effort I had previously devoted to my studies was sufficient; but I realized soon that I will need to put much more effort to be able to keep going at the faculty. Nevertheless, I found the biochemistry programme so fascinating that I was looking forward to the lectures. While still having other interests such as sport, I was always doing my best to get to the classes, even though they were not mandatory. I enjoyed them and they helped me to pass exams much easier.
It is typical for our faculty that students are already involved in research during their studies. How did you get involved in research during your Bachelor’s degree?
It started with the laboratory practice that forms part of the teaching program. These are very intense, so you are already beginning to get used to research work. Thanks to these, my interest in scientific work got more intense in the second semester. During the second year of my Bachelor's degree, I was able to work in the clinical laboratory of the Biochemistry Department of Brno University Hospital in Bohunice, where I have been working with patient samples.
How did your research work progress during your Master’s and Doctoral studies?
After completing my Bachelors thesis, I began looking for something new. For my Master’s degree, I joined the lab of Dr. Karel Souček in the Department of Animal Physiology and Immunology at the Faculty of Science’s Institute of Experimental Biology at the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Biophysical Institute in Brno.At that time,he was offering an interesting topic in the field of tumour biology (Synthetically lethal combination of DNA damage and Chk1 inhibition in the context of anti-tumour therapy). It was that time when I got a real idea of how research and research teams work. I also saw that, with the help of an excellent trainer, if I devote time and energy to my research it will have positive feedback in the form of published articles, which motivated me even more. And there was another motivation; the personality of the trainer. I think I can recognize someone’s is interest in me, and I felt this with my supervisor. When I feel that, I always try to return it with the same amount of energy and time. Ultimately, this helped me to complete my Master's degree and Doctorate relatively quick, and at the same time obtainin a lot of interesting research data.
You said that biochemistry is the basis of all life; how does biochemistry define life?
The aim of biochemistry is to describe all chemical processes in living organisms using molecular terminology. However, its main purpose is to gain an understanding of ‘health’, and how to maintain it, along with an understanding of diseases and how to suppress them effectively. In this, biochemistry goes hand in hand with medicine; one without the other cannot work. I began to concentrate on a fundamental question related to cancer: how to effectively suppress the disease and prevent it spreading further? My motivation was and remains clear: to contribute to improving therapy and quality of life in patients with cancer. Even if I could help to save just one life, in the end it would be worth it.
How did you end up at the clinical and research department of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida?
As part of a scientist’s ongoing career progression, one must follow doctoral studies with at the position known as postdoctoral fellow. In addition, experience from abroad is always very important. At that time, I talked to several people because I wanted to get an objective view as to whether I was ready for such a move. Having received support from my supervisor and other collaborators, I decided to apply for several positions that I had largely pre-selected during my Doctoral studies by sending motivational letters directly to the heads of the laboratories. In the end, I had several offers and could afford to choose, which encouraged me. I am a very indecisive person but, after long consideration, several factors made me decide on the Moffitt Cancer Center. First, my current boss, Dr. Ana Gomes, was setting up a new laboratory, so I could transfer a significant part of my research and develop it further with no limitations. At the same time, it allowed me to work on what I was specifically interested in. But I was also intrigued by her way of thinking and her behaviour during our conversations. However, it was not only these things, but a deep decision from multiple parameters. These included institution by itself, but alsolifestyle and climate, because I don’t like winters and cold weather. I am currently based at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida for more than a year and a half.
So you were able to choose your place of future employment from many options. What do you think your potential employers saw in you?
I believe that the faculty, and particularly my supervisor, Dr. Karel Souček, prepared me well for my future career. I spent 7 years in his laboratory throughout my Master's degree, and it was through his guidance that I realised that if I will not invest enough energy to produce data, my potential employers will have no way of evaluating me. I think that I ultimately had an opportunity to choose my next destination because I showed interest in the technical part of the work, and that I had already learnt several techniques that not everyone can handle. Our laboratory at the Academy of Sciences’ Biophysical Institute owned several flow cytometers, and I had developed my expertise on these. Thus, employers were interested in me because I was already trained in the methods they would need and had the ability to work alone on in vivo studies, meaning they didn’t have to worry so much about supervising me in this angle. On the other hand, this might become also a limitation as it means a lot of work to do for everyone, as I found out soon. But this is definitely not a limitation per se as it frequently lead to new contacts, collaborations and friendships.
What method do you use most in your research?
I use several methods on daily basis, but flow cytometry the most. I was lucky that not everyone can do this, and not everyone can design appropriate research. It’s not just about knowing the method, you should be also able to think and plan everything needed to make it work. If you can do this, then flow cytometry is a very fast and reliable method that provides high quality data. In the laboratory I ended up in, no one else could do it, and this helped me a lot to succeed.
When you were thinking about methods to focus on, was it your intention to develop expertise in a method that not everyone could do, and in that way be more competitive?
Definitely. Although I didn’t know that it will be flow cytometry in advance, it turned out that the combination of flow cytometry and in vivo studies, which I was already able to design and do, are qualities that the leaders of research groups appreciate. Not everyone can do it because not everyone has had the chance to learn these things while studying.
How much blood and sweat goes into the design of a research programme?
And tears 😊− well, a lot. It was a year of hard work. While machine and computer interfaces are relatively user-friendly, to design actual experiments where everything works you need to practice, apply trial and error approach and improve in time. On many occasions, the experiment burned out, so I had to design it differently or analyse it another way. I also learnt to deal with failure. It doesn't matter how you deal with it, whether with tears or tantrums, but you need to deal with it and continue. I recently taught a method to a group of people who, after a while, came back to me and complained that it was not going well. I had to tell them that I had gone through the same process for a year😊.
Do you see research design as a creative activity?
Research or experimental planning is tremendously creative, and you can do magic if you know what you are doing and why. I enjoy it, and it has even improved my style of thinking. For example, it has taught me not to look at things from just one angle but to try and understand the matter in a comprehensive way. Also, I now follow the saying “measure twice, cut once”, because everything costs money; you can’t experiment for ever, with no plan and no success.
Let’s now move onto the topic of your research. How was your scientific dream to diagnose ‘sleeping’ tumour cells and arrange them not to ‘wake up’ again born?
It was born by trying to find my own area of research. It’s also called “niche”, a point where you can integrate into the system; it shouldn’t be an area that everyone is working on already, meaning there is enough room to develop. In my research, I focus on the mechanism of dormancy; in other words, how tumour cells ‘fall asleep’ and how they ‘reawaken’. Dormancy is part of the process of metastasis and is one of the main culprits of disease relapse and patient death due to metastatic cancer. While the primary tumour can be often removed, if tumour cells have already spread into circulation it is very likely that the cells will reach other organs, where they will wait for a suitable moment to ‘reawaken’ from their dormant phase. This can take a month, year or decades. Unfortunately, by its very nature, traditional chemotherapy used for the treatment of cancer is not effective enough to kill these cells, hence this remains a problem that we are still unable to solve. I am interrogating how cells can ‘fall asleep’ and ‘wake’ up in an organ after ten years, even when the patient is in remission, such that they have the same disease, only in another part of the body.
At what stage are you now in your research on the sleeping and awakening of cancer cells?
I am still at the basic research level, investigating dormancy in living organisms such as mice. If something significant occurs, the path to patient samples in the USA might straightforward. Right now, we are trying to understand molecular mechanisms by which these cells fall asleep and reawaken. If we can find out what regulates this switch, we may be able to identify an existing drug or molecule that can specifically target such cells.
You have devoted yourself to this research for a year and a half. What results do you have so far?
Well, we have managed to identify a specific molecule that appears to regulate the phenotype switch. What’s more, the mechanism appears to be based on epigenetics (chromatin regulation). Now I am trying to confirm that it really happens within living organisms. If this succeeds, it would be possible to move onto research with samples from actual patients. In addition, I put significant effort on analysis of already existing data (originally produced for a completely different reason), which has enabled me to see that levels of the molecule we are examining correlate with the stage of dormancy. We think that we are on the right track. This is a hypothesis that we have concentrated on a lot and, I believe, we have decent chance of success with it.
In the last thirty years, thanks to the digitization of scientific communication, access to scientific data and literature has become enormously faster and easier. What does this mean for your research?
It provides a great freedom. If a person wants, they have almost unlimited possibilities to further their research just by sitting at a computer and examining the previous data of other researchers. There is so much data available that we don’t have the capacity to process it all. While scientists often generate data for one specific reason they are interested in, that same data has huge potential for other scientists in many other fields. The data available has huge potential, it is up to people how they use it.
You are doing very well in the U.S. Why are you planning to come back to the Czech Republic later?
I would not want to ‘slip through’ the Czech system by not paying for the tuition I received during my education. Even if we do have good and free education and health care, if everyone leaves, and we are not able to get those people to return, we will never grow as a country. If our scientists remain abroad, then all what they have learned here will only profit the system there from. While it is necessary that great scientists are given the opportunity to travel for postdoc, they should have been given motivation to return and help raise a new generation of students, thereby creating a cycle that will contribute to growth of science (and other fields) in our country.
Where did this selfless attitude to your country come from?
It probably happened gradually. I realised that I (and my parents) did not have to substantially invest in my education in any way (as compared to the US, for example). I think that our equal opportunity for access to education and our education system itself are great. It is part of me that when I feel someone has invested in me, I want to return like for like, or with something even better😊.
Do you plan to teach or cooperate on research at your alma mater?
Just now, I aim to focus on why I am here and on my current research. Not just me but also those closest to me have devoted huge effort in getting me there. Of course, in the future, I couldn’t resist some form of cooperation with Masaryk University. Under certain conditions, however, it doesn’t really matter where you do research, as long as it is done well.
Based on your experience, why would you recommend that potential students choose our faculty?
I think that both the people and the general feeling in my study program were great. The teachers really cared to teach us something. I would foremost recommend to choose supervisor carefully, looking at both the people that studied under them and where they ended up. One shouldn’t just choose a topic, they should also put in some preparatory research.
It appears you have made a number of good choices; do you agree?
Well, I’ve been lucky😊; but it’s true that I read everything thoroughly several times before I make final decision. I am generally indecisive person and this thoroughness helped me tremendously as I was taking a long time deciding. In the end, by making partial decisions, I gradually eliminate all possibilities except the last one. And maybe all the possibilities could be fine, but in the end, I feel satisfied that I have made a final decision based on proper considerations. Though it takes effort, it’s worth it in the end.
Finally, tell us what your driving force is in scientific work?
The fact that the same chemotherapeutics have been used for several decades and people are still dying. Maybe less often, but they still die. And that it is necessary to change very quickly. For many diseases, we now have drugs that are 90 % or more effective; in the case of cancer, however, treatments are generally only 10 to 20 % effective. And for some subtypes there is no treatment at all. We study cancer, but we are still at a point where the quality of patient life upon therapy is very low and the treatment itself is restrictive and long. I would like us to experience a revolution in the treatment of tumour diseases like the one that Professor Jan Starý contributed to in the treatment of paediatric leukaemia. This gives us hope that it is possible. This is also my main motivation.
Thank you for the interview.
Translation: Kevin Frances Roche, Stanislav Drápela