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Scientist Focus: Pablo Garcia Reitboeck

Dr Laura PhippsKirsty MaraisClaire LucasRobin BrisbourneKaty StubbsEd PinchesGlyn Morris

Earlier this year, Dr Pablo Garcia Reitboeck began a three-year Clinical Research Fellowship with Alzheimer’s Research UK. The grant sees Pablo, a doctor specialising in Neurology, divide his time between the clinic and the lab. We caught up with him to find out more about his work and why he became interested in dementia research.

Name and job title

Dr Pablo Garcia Reitboeck, Alzheimer’s Research UK Clinical Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Neurology

What does your research focus on?

I’m researching the role of the immune system in Alzheimer’s disease, and specifically the role of microglia, which are the brain’s resident immune cells. I’m interested in a particular gene called TREM2, which was recently discovered to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. TREM2 helps control microglia, so I want to know how this gene affects the function of these immune cells in the context of Alzheimer’s disease.

Human stem cells in culture - credit Pablo Garcia Reitboeck UCL

Human stem cells in culture – credit Pablo Garcia Reitboeck UCL

To do this I’m using stem cells derived from the skin of people with a particular variant of the TREM2 gene, which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Stem cells can be directed to become any other type of cell in the body, so we can generate immune cells from these stem cells and study them in the lab. It’s amazing when you look through the microscope and see stem cells, and then when you look back a few weeks later, having directed them down a particular path, they’ve become completely different types of cells.

Why is this area of research important?

Recent genetic studies have focused our attention on the role of the immune system in Alzheimer’s disease. They have given us a clue about where to look to understand the disease process. If we can find out how this genes contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, we can identify processes that can be targeted by drug companies to develop a treatment. The more complete a picture we have about what goes on in Alzheimer’s disease, the better we can fight it. At the same time, we’re trying to generate a model where we can test new treatments.

Discovering the TREM2 gene

Discovering the TREM2 gene (click to enlarge)

What’s been your career path to date?

I studied medicine at the University of Vienna, and became interested in neuroscience as a student during an elective at Emory University in Atlanta. I first became interested in specialising in Neurology when I did an elective at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where I met patients with a variety of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Pablo Garcia Reitboeck

Dr Pablo Garcia Reitboeck

After finishing my medical degree, I moved to the University of Cambridge, where I undertook a PhD in Prof Maria Grazia Spillantini’s laboratory. I worked on Parkinson’s disease, and studied a protein called alpha-synuclein, which plays a key role in Parkinson’s. In the same research institute there was also a lot of stem cell work going on at the time, and I was fascinated by the work my colleagues were doing and the potential of stem cells.

After my PhD I went on to advance my clinical training in general medicine and Neurology, and became a Specialist Registrar in Neurology at St George’s Hospital in London.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

I was very happy and privileged to receive this fellowship from Alzheimer’s Research UK, which meant that I was able to embark on my own research project and continue my research career.

You’ve spent the past few years working solely as a clinician. Did you always know you wanted to go back into the lab?

Yes, it was something I always wanted to do. Neurology is a specialty where we still do not have treatments for many conditions, so research becomes extremely important.

What advice would you give to other clinicians considering branching out into research?

In a way, you’re doing two jobs at the same time, but I find that research and clinical practice complement each other nicely. As a clinician I know what matters to patients, which helps you focus when doing research. I find it very inspiring and humbling as a researcher to meet the patients that are affected by the disorders that we investigate. A lot of scientists do not get that insight, and it really motivates you to go back to the lab to do research. It’s a privilege to be exposed to these two different worlds.

Of course it’s demanding to be a good doctor and a good researcher at the same time, but if you’re curious to learn about what causes a disease, it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s a very different environment that you find yourself in, and I would recommend it to everyone who is interested in research.

It also means you see first-hand the efforts that are going on to find a cure and you can tell patients about that work. In the dementia clinic where I work, I’ve seen that a lot of patients are very interested in participating in research. It’s very humbling to see patients go out of their way to be part of research and the effort to find a cure, even though it may not help them directly.

What do you do in your spare time/ outside the lab?

Living in London I’m lucky that there are lots of things on offer like concerts and the theatre – I’m a big fan of jazz so I enjoy going to jazz concerts. I’m also getting married soon, so at the moment I’m preparing for my wedding!

What’s the one thing you can’t live without?

I would have to say coffee.

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