Excellent scientist, natural group leader and enthusiastic science communicator, Jorge Ruas at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Physiology is all three. In awarding Ruas the 2013 Malin and Lennart Philipson Foundation Prize and Research Grant, the Board has done a hat trick.
The prize is a research grant of SEK 2 million, SEK 50,000 of which constitutes a personal award.
Li Felländer-Tsai, professor of orthopaedics at Karolinska Institutet and a member of the scientific committee is very pleased with the choice.
Jorge Ruas has made important scientific discoveries, demonstrated a high degree of productivity and established an independent line of research. Indeed, he deserves this award, she says.
After receiving his PhD in 2005 in Cell and Molecular Biology, Ruas did his Post-Doc at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in the US before returning to KI in 2011 to start his own laboratory in molecular and cellular exercise physiology at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.
His research focuses on molecular mechanisms that regulate muscle mass and function, with a particular emphasis on finding future treatments against muscle atrophy.
Discovered novel protein
An important breakthrough after about five year´s work was the discovery by Dr. Ruas and his then US-based research group of the previously unknown protein PGC-1 alpha4 in mice. The protein – or actually one of four variants encoded by the same gene – spurs muscle growth and increased power following resistance exercise like bodybuilding or weightlifting. The findings were presented in the prestigious journal Cell.
Since the protein is also found in humans, their results open up for possible treatments that could improve the performance capacity of patients and prevent muscle loss as a result of, for example, cancer, prolonged inactivity in hospital patients, and aging. Physical exercise and skeletal muscle condition also play a major role in the prevention and treatment of diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer´s Disease.
Current research in Dr. Ruas laboratory is supported by several funding bodies such as the Swedish Diabetes Association (Diabetesförbundet), Marie Curie Actions, Novo Nordisk Foundation, The Swedish Research Council, The Strategic Research Programme in Diabetes at KI, and The Wenner-Gren Foundations.
Nevertheless, the Malin and Lennart Philipson Foundation grant holds a special significance for Dr. Ruas.
– For one thing it is associated with the name of Lennart Philipson, which is a huge honor, and secondly it represents a positive evaluation of me and our group both in terms of scientific quality and leadership, which is very satisfying.
The bow to Lennart Philipson is no cursory nod of respect on Ruas part. He actually has a personal relationship to the man behind the prize.
When I was a student at KI, Lennart Philipson was professor emeritus, and had a room on the same floor as me. In particular, I remember Lennart´s imposing physical size and deep bass voice. He was a great man in several respects. Having actually known him of course makes the prize especially valuable to me.
Less is more
Ruas´ research group in muscle physiology started in 2011 and consists of 8 people in all, three PhD students, three post-doc researchers, a research technician and Ruas himself, who professes to be of the “less is more” school in this regard.
– I like the fact that the group is not too big. It should grow a bit more but not too much. This way I know exactly what is going on and can talk to everyone. The researchers represent a good combination of skills in molecular biology, physiology and biochemistry. We are still busy defining our identity.
The Department of Physiology and Pharmacology offers the opportunity to work with the whole research chain from cell to society. Ruas is vocal about the prospects which Karolinska Institutet´s cutting edge research environment provides. In fact, he is expressive. Period. His vitality – even over the phone – is infectious. Apart from obvious talent, and leadership qualities, what’s the secret? Ruas does not beat about the bush.
»Everyone responds to passion«
– If I have to say what I may have going for me, I can perhaps refer to the feedback I get when I lecture. People pick up that I am very enthusiastic about science and about our work, which I find relevant and exciting. That comes across, and everyone responds to someone who is passionate about what they do. Unfortunately, with researchers, it is not always easy to spot the excitement.
So, do you think you have found “the” factor behind muscle development?
– No, I don´t think there is one single factor controlling a function like muscular growth which plays such an important evolutionary role. But I think we have found an important player in the regulation of how muscle responds to growth stimuli.
Future research in Ruas laboratory will hopefully further elucidate the complex molecular mechanisms mediating how the body adapts to exercise.
– We are particularly interested in understanding how exercised or sedentary skeletal muscle can crosstalk with other organs, and how it can affect individual health and disease.