Dr. Daniel Lipka, MD, is the 2014 winner of the ISEH New Investigator Award, given to the best presentation by a post-doctoral fellow. He is a postdoc in the laboratory of Professor Christoph Plass, German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg, Germany. Dr. Lipka is board certified for internal medicine, hematology and oncology and has been working in the field of hematology and stem cell for 9 years as a clinician and 3 years in basic research. He joined ISEH a year ago.
Dr. Lipka took the time to participate in a Q&A session with Connections. Below he discusses how he transitioned from a clinician to a basic scientist, exciting developments in his research, as well as his future goals as an independent scientist.
Tell us about your post-graduate education, generally.
I studied medicine at the Universities of Heidelberg (Germany) and Madrid (Spain). Afterwards, I completed my training in Internal Medicine at the University Medical Centers of Ulm and Mainz in Germany and then moved to the University Medical Center in Magdeburg to specialize in Hematology/Oncology in the program lead by Prof. Thomas Fischer. In 2011, I then chose to leave clinical practice in order to pursue my growing interest in medical research and took up a position within the Division of Epigenomics and Cancer Risk Factors at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) under the guidance of Professor Christoph Plass. Since then, my scientific research focuses on how the epigenome regulates the biology of both normal and malignant hematopoiesis.
Who has most influenced you to become a scientist, and how did they influence you?
My clinical mentor Thomas Fischer is a clinician scientist who dedicated his entire career to combine translational research with academic clinical medicine. During my entire clinical training, he supported and enforced my interest in hematologic research, which ultimately led to the decision to move into basic hematologic research.
How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
For me as a clinical hematologist, it was a natural consequence to pursue my scientific career in the field of hematology, and as a matter of fact, when dealing with hematologic malignancies one cannot evade becoming interested in hematologic stem cells right away.
What is the overall aim of your research?
The overall aim of my research is to contribute to the understanding of the pathogenesis of myeloid malignancies at the molecular level. In the last couple of years, epigenetics has moved into the focus of hematologic research since many epigenetic key players show mutations in hematologic malignancies. My approach is to try and understand the role of epigenetics during normal hematopoiesis, since I believe that without understanding normal differentiation processes, it will be impossible to understand malignant transformation. One major technical barrier in this field of research, which limits the study of rare stem cell/cancer stem cell populations, is the relatively large amounts of input material that is required to perform true genome wide sequencing analysis following chromatin immunoprecipitation or bisulphite conversion. In Professor Plass’ lab, I have successfully employed a number of technologies in order to facilitate whole epigenome studies using limited input material from hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells.
Tell us a little about the subject of your presentation.
At this year’s ISEH meeting in Montreal, I presented my work describing the single CpG resolution DNA methylomes of hematopoietic stem cells and their immediate progeny. Across all populations, we identified >13000 differentially methylated regions that have not been covered by previous screens due to methodological restrictions. Differentially methylated regions were strongly enriched in cis-regulatory elements. We further observed an unprecedented correlation between changes in DNA methylation and gene expression. Together, this enabled us to identify a large number of novel gene regulatory elements, which are candidates for controlling the molecular programs directing self-renewal and early hematopoietic commitment.
How do you balance personal life and work?
My wife and my two children keep me busy while I’m at home and they manage to make me forget how busy I am at work as soon as I am entering our house.
What are you working on most intensely right now?
In our group, we are now working on a more comprehensive characterization of epigenetic changes occurring during early hematopoietic commitment. This will enable a better understanding of the molecular processes regulating stem cell self-renewal and differentiation.
In your field, what do you hope we will know in five or 10 years that we don’t know now?
Currently, epigenetics is a fast moving field. We are currently only at the very beginning in our understanding of how genes are regulated. One major obstacle in understanding gene regulation on a genome-wide scale is that there are numerous regions that can act at long distances, which makes the identification of their targets extremely difficult. I hope, that within the next 10 years mapping approaches would be feasible also for adult hematopoietic stem cells. The comprehensive mapping of genes to their regulatory regions will not only enhance our understanding of how hematopoiesis is regulated, but it will also facilitate the identification of novel drug targets for the treatment of hematologic malignancies.
Who is your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you?
My most influential scientific mentor is Christoph Plass. I started in his lab as a postdoc three years ago, and he managed to get me fascinated in the field of epigenetics from the first day on. I managed to convince him to pursue my idea to study the DNA methylomes of hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells which I envisioned to be a major resource for hematologic research.
Although this was not his primary research field at that time, he heavily supported me throughout the entire project. Now, 2 ½ years later, we have published two papers based on the results of this work.
What are your future career plans?
In the near future, I hope to be able to start my own research group dealing with epigenetics in normal and malignant hematopoiesis.
What general advice would you give a young person considering a career in science?
Follow your interest and know your capabilities. This is, apart from hard work, the basis for success in research.
What are the results of a scientific career that makes it worthwhile and exciting?
During your research you ask questions and try to design the right experiment to answer these questions. Sometimes you get the answer (right or wrong) from your experiment, but sometimes the result is something completely unexpected. This is why I am still fascinated by science.
How were you introduced to ISEH?
I was introduced to ISEH through my colleague Mick Milsom who was telling me how great the annual ISEH meetings are.
What do you find most valuable about ISEH
ISEH is a viable research society and I experience that everybody in the society really actively contributes to keep this research society alive.
Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
At the ISEH Annual Meeting unpublished data are presented and discussed. I feel that the ISEH Annual Meeting is very interactive and a good forum for presenting research, since numerous well renowned experts in the field of hematology are attending the meeting.
What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory
A statement by Connie Eaves at the beginning of her talk in Montreal this year. She was saying that she was happy to be able to present her data on the “annual world lab meeting”. And this statement represented exactly how I feel about the ISEH Annual Meeting.
What are your?
Hobbies: Running, Skiing
Favorite book(s): “La sombra del viento” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón