Dr Ben Loos is a Senior Lecturer at Stellenbosch University and is the head of the Neuro Research Group (NRG). He is originally from Berlin, where he finished his undergraduate studies. Then he came to Stellenbosch, where he did his honours, masters and PhD in cellular physiology. During his PhD, he studied the molecular mechanisms of cell death during ischemic injury. He also started the fluorescence imaging facility at Stellenbosch University, which is now a state of the art facility. This formed the basis of his research background. After his PhD he chose to stay and build on the work he started during his PhD, instead of doing a postdoc overseas.
Dr Ben Loos kindly agreed to do an interview ahead of the BFRG research day, where he will be the invited speaker and judge the young researcher presentation competition. I asked him a few questions and this is what he had to say:
- Quickly explain your research for those of us who are not experts in your field.
Autophagy is a protein degradation pathway and has received lots of attention in the last 10-15 years. It is the first stress response in cells. My specific interest lies in autophagy in neurons. Neurons have a very high protein turnover rate and when the autophagy process gets distrupted, it results in a build-up of toxic proteins, which leads to neurodegeneration. The ultimate aim is to manipulate the pathway so that we can control or predict cell death.
- Why did you chose to go into this field of research?
During my PhD, my supervisor, Anna-Mart Engelbrecht, gave me a paper on autophagy and said “This is going to be something new”. At the time, there was not a lot of research being done on the topic. That was a pivotal moment in my life that directed me into the field of autophagy. From there on I moved into the field of neurodegeneration.
- Any exciting research projects you are currently busy with?
We are currently working on live cell microscopy to accurately measure the process of autophagy. We use a technique called micropatterning, which is a way of manipulating the substrate so that the cell cultures only grow in a specific area or in a specific pattern, and then we use fluorescence imaging to observe the process of autophagy. This way we can measure time-related issues and, because it is a controlled setting, we can tweak the system to see which conditions have a protective effect on the cells.
- What are the big questions in your field that still need to be answered in the near future?
One big question that still needs to be answered is how to measure protein degradation activity in in vivo models; firstly in animal models, and eventually in human patients. This would allow for clinical applications. For example, in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which is caused by protein aggregation, how much do we need to activate autophagy to cure Alzheimer’s?
- Who is your role model?
There are so many, I am afraid to single out any one of them. I have a few collegues that I really look up to and from whom I have learned a lot. Two of them include Noboru Mizushima from Japan and Dan Klionsky from Michigan. Of course, Anna-Mart Engelbrecht, my former PhD supervisor, is also my role model.
- What do you enjoy outside of work?
I love spending time with my family. I have two boys, one and five years old. I also have many other interests and hobbies, even though I don’t get much time to practise them that often. I like music, art, nature and photography. I also really like anatomy, and one of my hobbies is to collect skulls of animals, such as springbok, from people who hunt and then construct exploded skull models.
- Do you have any advice for postgraduate students or young academics on how to succeed in research?
To be globally competitive you need to use excellent techniques to answer important questions. Therefore, in the beginning of your career it is really important to develop niche expertise in techniques, publish in high impact journals and to be globally connected.
- Any last comments?
Thank you very much for this opportunity. The biomedical field is so important and it is a growing field with so many questions that still need to be answered. I guess what I am trying to say is that the biomedical field is a good field for the future.
It was fascinating to talk to Dr Ben Loos and I am looking forward to meeting him in person at the Brain Function Research Group Research Day. His talk titled The role of autophagy in neurodegeneration and proteotoxicity promises to be very interesting.
To find out more about his work, here are some of his latest publications:
- Virtual reality assisted microscopy data visualization and colocalization analysis, RP Theart, B Loos, TR Niesler, BMC bioinformatics 18 (2), 64. 2017
- Autophagy and the invisible line between life and death, C Swart, A Du Toit, B Loos, European Journal of Cell Biology 95 (12), 598-610. 2016
- Caloric restriction and the precision-control of autophagy: A strategy for delaying neurodegenerative disease progression, C Ntsapi, B Loos, Experimental gerontology 83, 97-111, 2016.
- Cancer tolerance, resistance, pathogenicity and virulence: deconstructing the disease state, G van Niekerk, B Loos, T Nell, AM Engelbrecht, Future Oncology 12 (11), 1369-1380, 2016
- Autophagy—a free meal in sickness-associated anorexia, G van Niekerk, B Loos, T Nell, AM Engelbrecht, Autophagy 12 (4), 727-734, 2016.