Andrew Elefanty is a member of the ISEH board of directors. He has been in the hematology field for 28 years and has been a member of ISEH since 2010. He heads the Blood Cell Development & Disease Laboratory at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne.
Describe your lab or work environment:
The MCRI is integrated into The Royal Children's Hospital, the major pediatric hospital serving the state of Victoria in Australia. My laboratory works closely with longtime collaborator Prof Ed Stanley, whose Stem Cell Technology laboratory is also located at MCRI, and the pluripotent stem cell laboratories of Dr. David Elliott (cardiac development) and Prof Melissa Little (kidney development).
How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
I initially trained as a medical oncologist with an interest in malignant hematology. As part of my training, I embarked on a PhD at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, creating retroviral gene transfer mouse models for chronic myeloid leukemia, supervised by Prof Suzanne Cory (who would later be WEHI director). After my PhD, in 1993 I made the critical decision to go to the UK for a post doc, rather than return to the clinical workforce. (aside A decision that my wfe, scientist Dr Elizabeth Ng, rebukes me for on a daily basis!) I worked at the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in London, in the laboratory of Prof Frank Grosveld, where I studied GATA genes and globin regulation. There, I met and worked alongside great scientists including Elaine Dzierzak and Alexander Medvinsky. Returning to Australia in 1995, I initially worked again at WEHI, studying the hematopoietic defect in SCL/TAL1 deficient mice. To study the absence of blood in these animals, I started to use mouse embryonic stem cell differentiation, a field in which Gordon Keller was doing pioneering work, as a model system to access the earliest stages of hematopoietic mesoderm development. With the generation of human embryonic stem cells by James Thomson and then by Martin Pera (who was at Monash University in Australia), I decided that this was the field for the future, and for me. I transferred my research along with Elizabeth Ng and Ed Stanley, to Monash University in 2002 and we started working in the new field of human embryonic stem cell culture and differentiation. My laboratory and Ed Stanley's laboratory relocated to the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in 2012, in order to enhance future stem cell translational opportunities. The rest is history…
And then how were you introduced to ISEH?
I initially attended an ISEH meeting in 1998 in Vancouver where I presented our early mouse embryonic stem cell differentiation data. There followed a hiatus of about a decade when I preferentially attended the International Society for Stem Cell Research annual meetings. I saw the light in 2010, when the ISEH annual meeting was held in my home town, Melbourne. I realized that this was the 'go to' meeting for me and I have attended every year since and have maintained a keen interest and involvement in the society.
There are a lot of interesting aspects of this scientific field; what do you find the most exciting?
As outlined in my answer to the next question, my passion is the understanding of human HSC development in the early embryo using differentiation of human pluripotent stem cell as a model system. Reaching this goal will be of tremendous practical significance in allowing the in vitro generation of repopulating cells with therapeutic utility for patients with a range of illnesses.
What is the most exciting study or project happening at your lab/facility?
The most exciting work that we are doing is related to the elucidation of the development of hematopoieitic stem cells from differentiating human pluripotent stem cells. Our laboratory has been studying human hematopoietic differentiation for over 10 years and we feel that we now understand this process a little better. Eventually, we would like to be able to produce a 'roadmap' or 'blueprint' that delineates the path that human pluripotent stem cell take as they journey from an undifferentiated state to the first HSCs. We have been assisted in our endeavours by the development of a differentiation system (the spin EB), a defined medium (APEL), and the generation of fluorescent reporter cell lines that facilitate the identification of key developmental stages during human hematopoietic differentiation. Of course, our work is informed by advances in human and mouse developmental biology and pluripotent stem cell differentiation made by our many great colleagues and collaborators.
Given your experience in the field, how have you seen the field change in the last five years?
I think that recent changes in our field can be considered at different levels. Firstly, there are the incremental increases in knowledge that enable us to now do something that we could not previously do. For example, in my field, we are now confident that we can differentiate human pluripotent stem cells to definitive lineages. Next, there are key discoveries or technologies that underpin these advances. For example, the rapid development and adoption of CRISPR/Cas9 mediated genome editing has greatly facilitated the genetic manipulation of pluripotent stem cells and animals. Progressive improvements in genome and transcript sequencing and data handling has also significantly enhanced our ability to generate and process these data.
It’s clear that the field is going to continue to evolve at an amazing pace. How do you see it changing over the next five years?
I suspect that we are on the cusp of a wave of stem cell related clinical trials and therapies that will move regenerative medicine from the sphere of wishful thinking to scientific reality over the next decade. I think that hematological treatments will be amongst those that emerge over this time period.
How would you describe the funding climate for your specific type of research?
Difficult. Funding opportunities for basic research are increasingly limited and these cuts may seriously impact on new innovative research.
What advice do you have for new investigators entering this scientific field?
You need to identify and develop an 'angle', or a 'niche' that sets you aside from others in the field. You also need someone to love you (metaphorically!) and nurture you early in your career. This is particularly important for women who will be trying to juggle the challenges of family and career.
What do you find most valuable about ISEH?
ISEH provides a unique mix of scientists passionate about blood, a broad range of expertise encompassing all areas of hematology plus a very friendly and collegial atmosphere. ISEH deservedly has a reputation for camaraderie and openness, attributes that I greatly value.
Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
ISEH is the most relevant forum for someone like me who studies hematopoietic development. I particularly like the focused sessions that are relevant to my interests, and the opportunity to network with colleagues. The medium size of the meeting means that it is feasible to catch up with everyone who you wish to see over the course of the meeting.
What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?
In the 2014 ISEH meeting in Montreal, we had a bat in our hotel room! We called security who came with a swimming pool net to capture and evict the unwanted guest. Needless to say, the bat returned the next night. We moved rooms! [I have video footage of the bat in the room!]
Do you have a hobby?
I have been learning to play flamenco guitar. My wife Elizabeth is a keen flamenco dancer.
What are your favorite books?
I like all the books written by Stephen King (fantasy/horror) and by Neil Gaiman (fantasy)
What is your favorite movie?
Blade Runner, by Ridley Scott
If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
I would like to meet the developmental biologist and epigeneticist, Conrad Waddington. I think that his ideas on the regulation of differentiation are very relevant to the hematopoietic differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells that my laboratory is interested in.