Jean-Pierre Levesque is an Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow, as well as the Head of the Blood and Bone Diseases Program and of the Stem Cell Biology Group at Mater Medical Research Institute in South Brisbane, Australia. He obtained his Engineering Degree in Agronomics from the Institut National Agronimique De Paris-Grignon, and a PhD from Paris XI University in France in 1987. He subsequently joined the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France. Dr. Levesque then moved to the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Sciences (Adelaide) in 1994, and to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Melbourne) in 2000 to establish a new Hematopoietic Stem Cell Laboratory. In 2005, he moved to Brisbane and established a new Stem Cell group at Mater Research. In 2006 he was awarded a Senior Research Fellowship from the Cancer Council of Queensland, and then from the National Health and Medical Research Council in 2012.
Dr. Levesque has been in the hematology and stem cell field since 1983, when he started his PhD, and his area of expertise is hematopoietic stem cell and stem cell niche biology. He has been a continuous member of ISEH since 1999, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors, Chair of the Finance Committee, and ISEH's Treasurer.
Dr. Levesque kindly participated in a Q&A session with Connections. Below he shares with us
how he transitioned from agronomic engineering to hematology; his decision to continue his research career in Australia; the funding atmosphere in the country, and the rewards of being the Treasurer of ISEH.
How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
I came to the hematology and stem cell biology field by chance. I was doing an Engineering degree in France in one of its Grandes Ecoles and I wanted to do a BSc in biochemistry. I visited a few labs to do a year training and I picked a lab working on hematopoiesis and hematopoietic stem cells. I was completely fascinated by the idea of making blood cells from bits of human bone marrow in a Petri dish with red jelly in it. So, I chose this lab and a project. I must have done alright as I was offered a PhD scholarship from the French government to continue.
Who has most influenced you to become a scientist, and how did they influence you?
In year 12 at school and during my subsequent studies of maths, physics, geology and life sciences, I was fascinated by Albert Einstein. I was fascinated by the mind of Einstein; to create the theory of relativity from scratch. A theory that unified mass, energy and time to understand the universe from galaxies to sub atom forces. I loved maths and physics but I was not good enough in maths to become a mathematician or physicist. I was also very interested in biology and medicine and fascinated by the Nobel Prizes of the time, about the first use of genetics, discoveries of peptide hormones and their receptors. At the time, I thought that science was an adventure and a discovery journey for the mind and that with science anything was possible.
Who is your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you?
I think the most influential mentor was Paul Simmons (an ex-ISEH member). He encouraged me when I arrived in Australia and helped me through the Australian system. He was really supportive of my project to understand how cell adhesive interactions regulate stem cells and he made me realize that hematopoiesis has to be thought of in the context of its surroundings (the bone, the vasculature, and mature hematopoietic cells). He also taught me how to write a grant. I remember spending long evenings and nights articulating grants together. It was fun and I love the unleashing of creativity that writing a grant brings.
What is the overall aim of your research? What are you working on most intensely right now?
The overall aim of my research is to better understand how the hematopoietic system communicates with its surrounding within the bone marrow. If we can decipher how hematopoietic stem cells communicate with, and are regulated by the multiple components of their niche, this will open many possibilities. This includes being able to generate hematopoietic stem cells ex vivo for therapeutic uses (transplantation, genetic correction, etc). Also, I would like to understand how malignant cells pervert the system to expand and resist treatments. Progress is being made in this latter area with therapies targeting the interactions between leukaemia stem cells and their protective niches.
We have several projects running on which we are working pretty hard. One is to better understand how the hypoxia sensing pathway regulates hematopoietic stem cells. The second is to better understand what macrophages really do in bone marrow niches. The third is a more recent project to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms of heterotopic ossifications that develop in patients with spinal cord injuries.
What is the most exciting or intriguing result you’ve gotten so far?
As I said, we have a few exciting projects at the moment. But the most intriguing is our most recent one: why do muscles make ectopic bones following spinal cord injuries? This is a fascinating and unresolved stem cell biology question. This is not just exotic biology. Pathological heterotopic ossifications affect up to 25% patients with traumatic spinal cord injuries and the incidence is a lot worse in battle injuries, such as those from the Gulf War. Although this pathology has been known for 100 years, the etiology remains largely unknown and there is no treatment other than surgical resection once these ossifications are large to the point that they ankylose joints and entrap large vessels and nerves. It’s a fascinating biology question with an unmet clinical need! We have now managed to replicate this in mice, and this is giving new insights on the causes of this pathology.
What's the biggest challenge you've ever faced in your research?
To almost run out of funding for my research and myself. It almost happened 3 years ago, it made me very nervous but I was lucky. I got a research grant and a fellowship for myself just in time.
In your field, what do you hope we will know in 5 to 10 years that we don’t know now?
Will we understand the plasticity and fate decision of stem cells in vivo? Will we be able to replicate this in vitro in order to “fabricate” tissues ex-vivo? Will we understand why leukemia stem cells are resistant to chemotherapies and will we discover ways to overcome this resistance to cure diseases such as AML? I don’t know. I can’t read the future, but I hope we will have made significant progresses in these areas.
Instead of an academic career, did you consider a career in industry and why?
I have never really considered anything other than an academic career. I like the freedom of conceiving new ideas and testing them in the lab too much. This being said, I do have collaborations with a couple of biotechs. Some of my projects are very translational, so we work in partnership with these biotechs to develop patents and test their compounds for the potential applications.
Why did you choose to work in Australia?
After completing my PhD in France, I wanted a change of horizon in my life, with large uncrowded space and the freedom to work on my own research ideas. I chose Australia for a sabbatical, first because it was the furthest it could be from France, with large wild spaces and a long tradition in experimental hematology. CSFs and colony assays were discovered there after all! I was lucky to be given the chance to develop my career in Australia and I never went back (I do miss the smelly cheeses though).
What is the situation of funding for research in Australia? Can you compare it with the US and EU countries?
The funding situation in Australia is as bad as everywhere else. Federal funding for medical research has been going down year after year since 2010 with no improvement in perspective for the next few years. Success rate for medical research grants have halved compared to 2010 (currently 14% success rate). Lab heads also have to apply for research fellowships for our own salaries, and again success rates are going down. Now that Australian mining boom is over, perspectives are even dimmer with the success rate for grants projected to go down to 5.5%-10.5% in 2017. The problem we have in Australia is that: 1) we have very few large philanthropists like in the US and 2) we don’t have a supranational organization with deep pockets to fund science like the European Union. Although Australia is as big as the US, we are just 20 million people/citizens. As a consequence, financial resources to fund research are limited.
How were you introduced to ISEH?
I was introduced back in the very early 90s by my PhD supervisor. My first ISEH meeting was in Parma in 1992.
Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
I regularly attend the meetings because the program is great, with fantastic invited speakers. The meeting is small enough to actually meet and talk with people. It’s a very good place to learn about developments outside of my own area of expertise. I have learned a lot at ISEH meetings. It’s also a good place to meet people to start collaborations, networking, exchanges of techniques, etc. Also, as a young French scientist living in Australia, it gave me an annual opportunity to get a bit closer to my family for a quick visit.
What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?
I have lots of good ISEH meeting memories. Meeting colleagues and friends I have not met sometimes for several years is always exciting. When you live in Australia, you are pretty much at the end of the line, almost on a different planet far from everything else (apart from New Zealand). So meeting all my colleagues and friends in the same place once a year is great.
What do you find most valuable about ISEH?
The most valuable are the Annual Meeting and its journal Experimental Hematology. After a few years of absence (2 children came in the way), I've attended every year since 2009 and as I said earlier, the meeting is a great place to learn, meet, network, and for early career investigators, to get an oral presentation, international exposure and connections. Also the webinars, which are an initiative that started last year, are good and free for ISEH members.
The ISEH journal Experimental Hematology is a fantastic asset that members should make better use of. It’s free of charge for members, the turn-around is very quick and the editors and editorial board are made of very knowledgeable and talented ISEH members. I have published a few research articles and a review in Experimental Hematology. They are all cited over 50 times and some over 100 times. So if you have a good paper in Experimental Hematology, it will be cited. Putting my Treasurer’s hat on, Experimental Hematology is an essential asset for ISEH, as it provides 50% of the society’s revenues. Without the journal, it would be very difficult to run the society and organize the Annual Meeting.
What are your duties as Treasurer of the society?
My duties are to make sure that the finances of the society remain sound and are able to support the Annual Meeting and all the initiatives that the ISEH executives and Board of Directors want to develop. Fortunately, I get a lot of help from the staff of the managing company, SmithBucklin, who do the day-to-day management and accounting, and from the all-important finance committee made of ISEH members willing to help.
What does the role require on a day-to-day basis?
The day-to-day work of accounting revenues and expenses is done by the managing company's staff. So this not something I have to do.
How much time does the Treasurer role requires on a weekly/monthly basis?
As Treasurer, I attend the monthly Executive meeting as well as the Finance Committee meeting every second month. All these meetings are by teleconference, about an hour each, and I spend perhaps 2-4 hours to prepare for these meetings, and a few hours after the meeting if some action has to be taken. We have an agenda a few days before each meeting with data provided by the managing company SmithBucklin. During the couple of months before the Annual Meeting, I spend a bit more time to make sure that we are on budget with the meeting. The Annual Meeting represents 50% of our expenses and we want to make sure we keep it on budget. Another busy time is the preparation of the budget for the following year. This takes place in August-September. SmithBucklin's staff prepares it, so our job at the Finance Committee is to make sure that we have budgeted all the initiatives we want to put in place for the following year and make a balanced budget for the next year’s Annual Meeting. We have an extra 2-3 meetings to finalize the following year’s budget which is then presented to the Board of Directors for approval in October.
All in all I would say it takes me now about two days a month. I needed more time when I took the role 3 years ago, to understand the accounting and get everything on track. SmithBucklin's staff is always an e-mail away to help answer all questions.
What are the rewards of being the Treasurer of ISEH?
Two fantastic rewards are: 1) I have learnt a lot about running a budget of about $0.9M a year, establishing budgets for annual meetings, and seeing the process of organizing these meetings as well as initiatives that ISEH has initiated during the past 3 years. 2) It’s a fantastic position to work with the Executive and Board of Directors of ISEH. I really enjoy my monthly meetings with the past, current and future ISEH presidents. These are all very talented scientists whom I respect and working with them to steer the society has been a great privilege for the last 3 years.
Are there any transferable skills between Treasurer and scientist or vice-versa?
Thinking and running a budget, networking, and realizing that running a lab is like running a small business.
How is the financial situation of ISEH?
ISEH financial situation is very good. We have modified the Annual Meeting format and catering to avoid large losses that could potentially undermine the financial footing of the society. With this in mind, we hope to run the annual meeting without loss at all. What is also critical to the society continuing operation is the contract with Experimental Hematology's publisher, Elsevier. Experimental Hematology provides 50% of the society’s revenues, so it’s very important. We would also like to increase our membership and meeting attendance. An additional hundred members and meeting attendees would make an enormous difference to the budget.
What are the financial challenges that the Society faces?
The fact that most countries have reduced research funding and that some since the financial crisis in 2007-2008 is certainly a challenge. It is more difficult to attract corporate sponsorship and grants to fund the annual meeting. On the other hand, we are trying hard not to increase too much the meeting registration fees. Despite these financial challenges, we have run very successful meetings in the last 6 years and with the new meeting format, we should avoid large losses on future meetings. We also need strategies to increase our membership.
Which advice do you have for ISEH members that want to have a leadership role in the Society?
Put your hand up and get involved in one of the many ISEH committees to help steer the society and come up with fresh ideas. Come to the Annual Meeting regularly to meet and network, and showcase what you can bring to the society. Show your value as a scientist by submitting good abstracts. Once you start to be known by ISEH members, show your interest in being nominated to become a member of the Board of Directors and get elected.
What is the next role that you would like to have with ISEH?
This is my second successive term as Treasurer. I have learned a lot on the functioning of the society during these 3 years. During my tenure we have done a few changes to the financial running of the society. We have established a Finance Committee chaired by the Treasurer to review the financial position and budget on a regular basis. We have established an investment fund with the aim that future revenues will provide additional support for the society and strengthen its financial footing. I also think it is important to give continuity to the management of the society. So, when the Treasurer’s position is due for renewal in August next year, I hope to continue on the Finance Committee to help the new Treasurer.
What are your?
Hobbies: I love bushwalking in the remote Australian outback away from any technology or human presence except for my walking buddies. I do this less now that I have kids but now they are old enough, we take them with us in the car and for small day walks in some very remote areas of Australia. Like us, they love the wilderness and immensity of the landscapes. But this needs a lot of time (distances are huge) and organization. So, for 1 day long hobby, my winter favorite remains boogie-surfing on a week day to have the waves of the Pacific Ocean for myself. With a bit of luck, a dolphin will join the fun along my board. In the summer we take the kids to water theme parks, which are on the way to the beach. Lots of fun.
Favorite book(s): In English: A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle). In French: Regain (Jean Giono)
Favorite movie(s): I love cult movies (Pulp Fiction, Dr Strangelove, The Life of Brian, Delicatessen to name a few). A movie we love to watch with our kids is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We like travelling like Walter.
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