Meet Rosa Rademakers: new director of the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology

24 June 2019
Since Christine Van Broeckhoven will be retiring as director of the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology, we needed someone to replace her. Hers, however, are big shoes to fill. Fortunately, VIB managed to attract Rosa Rademakers, an alumnus of the center and former student of Christine. Rosa has made a name for herself on the international dementia research stage as professor at the renowned Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, Florida, US). Now, she returns home, backed by more than a decade of experience and a portfolio of the highest quality research, to start this new position as of the 15th of July. 

We were pleased to talk to her about the next step in her already great career, and her move back to Belgium, VIB and the University of Antwerp. 

You return to your alma mater, after almost 14 years in the department of Neuroscience of Mayo Clinic. And you return to the research center where you did your PhD. How do you feel about this?
“I am very excited to return home. Christine’s retirement provided an incredible opportunity to take the next step in my career and to be closer to my family. It is a double-edged sword, though. It takes time to build a lab with great people. It’s sad to leave that behind and start over.”

But you will keep interacting with your current lab? Perhaps even bring some people with you?
“There are a few people who will come with me. But it’s hard to convince Americans. Fortunately, Cristina
Vicente and Cyril Pottier, a postdoc and a senior staff scientist with European roots, will join me to help with
setting up the lab. We have also worked out a scenario where I remain affiliated with Mayo Clinic. This means
that the patient samples, the network of clinicians and researchers, will all still be available to me. This allows
me to start a new adventure and at the same time continue the work I’ve set up in the US.”

How has the research/scientific world changed in these 14 years? In the US? In Flanders?
“It has progressed tremendously, in both places. The focus of my research is neurogenetics. When I did
my PhD with Christine in Antwerp, we looked at two affected families to try and find involved genes, or even the chromosome where these were located. This took me my entire PhD and we didn’t even find it. Now, we sequence a whole genome in a day. Bioinformatics and statistics have also become much more relevant. We build large consortia that study vast numbers of patients with new methods and statistical approaches.”

You talk about consortia and the relevance of bioinformatics. Does it still matter where you do your research?
“That’s something I asked myself as well. And the answer is I’m not sure. Basically, everyone is working
together now. I personally think that it doesn’t matter that much anymore where you are. Of course, there are
more local interactions, which is an exciting opportunity for me to get involved in European studies. The funding is different though. I’ll have to learn how to write an ERC grant. In general, you can do the research in Belgium just as I would do it in the US, especially at VIB, which is really at the forefront of the research.”

Moving from group leader to science director is a big step. How do you see this? How will you deal with this challenge?
“That’s the part I’m most excited about. This is the next big step in my career, to build on the work already
done in Antwerp. In addition to Albena Jordanova and myself, we will recruit three new group leaders and
reshape the center. It’s a great opportunity to build a team filled with people who are passionate and work
well together.”

“The VIB-UAntwerp Center focuses on team-science and integrates innovative clinical, genetic, computational and functional biology approaches to define the molecular causes of neurodegenerative
diseases and its key disease-modifying pathways to create a world where individuals at risk for neurodegenerative diseases can be identified before the onset of clinical symptoms, where disease progression can be halted and individualized treatments are available to delay, reverse or prevent neurodegeneration.” Mission statement VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology – Rosa Rademakers 

Looking at your mission statement we have a few questions about it: you stress the integration of technologies. How important were the technology-related programs at VIB (Cores, Tech Watch, Innovation Lab) in your decision?
“Truthfully, I only learned about these things during the interview process, so it wasn’t the primary factor
in my decision. But after I found out, I was very happy to see that VIB invests in new technologies. It is great
to know that when new technologies are developed, we’ll be among the first to be able to use them, which
is very important in neurogenetics to get the maximum out of your samples. It opens opportunities and can be
important to recruit top people, to make it attractive for new PI’s to join us. I did know about Mojca Strazisar, the expert technologist in the VIB-UAntwerp Center, who  is certainly an asset. The challenge is to keep up since these technologies change so rapidly.”

You consider technologies important, but also team science. How do you see this?
“Team science occurs at multiple levels. On the one hand, I want people to work together in a collaborative
environment. Ideally in an interdisciplinary way, for example computational biologists working with
geneticists, structural biologists, and clinicians. This doesn’t have to be all in our center. We could collaborate, for example with the Center in Leuven. These interdisciplinary collaborations are often more than the sum of their parts.”

How do you think the collaboration between the different VIB neurological research centers in Antwerp and Leuven should evolve?
“It’s incredibly important to create strong ties with Leuven. We’ve already been in contact and they will certainly be involved with the recruitment of new people in Antwerp. But we will also retain our own identity. In Antwerp I would like to focus on computational biology. It’s all big data now. We have data from hundreds, thousands of patients. And not only on the genetics, but also on the epigenetics, transcriptomics, proteomics... If you can apply novel computational methods on this data, it will be possible to do incredibly exciting research. But to get a complete picture we need functional validation and we need to understand what happens in the brain. That’s where we could use partners, including the experts in Leuven.”

This brings us to your ambition to define the molecular causes of neurodegenerative diseases. How much of the iceberg do we still have to uncover?
“We’ve certainly made good progress. There are of course differences for the various types of dementia. Through the study of families with autosomal dominant inheritance we’ve explained the tip of the iceberg, the major causal mutations; whereas genome-wide association studies in larger patient populations have identified the first risk factors. But there are still a lot of patients we can’t explain yet. We also need to focus more on complex mutations including copy-number variation and repeat expansions.”

It is not easy to translate this into therapies and diagnostics, I suppose?
“The hope is that when you see certain shared pathways, you can identify therapeutic targets. The starting point is highly complex, the statistics and computational models and so on, but eventually it might give us a
clear idea about a downstream target that affects a large group of patients. The challenge is the step in
between, the development of screening assays or tests to narrow the list of therapeutic targets. This step is also where different disciplines meet, again stressing the importance of teamwork and interdisciplinarity.”

What are you looking forward to the most coming back to Belgium/VIB/Antwerp University?
“On the professional side: the fresh start. The chance to build something and recruit the right people. But
personally, just moving back to Europe. European food! Also, the ability to take vacations in Europe. When you live abroad, vacation is always coming back to Belgium for visits. I am looking forward to making Belgium our base to explore the rest of Europe, to expose our kids to different cultures. And to being closer to our families, of course.”

Are there (not science-related) aspects of working in the US that you would like to introduce here?
“What I want to take with me is having confidence in your work. This relates to the idea of the American
dream, aiming high. People, scientists, in Europe tend to be more modest. I want to bring that to the center, the pride in their/our work, the conviction that they/we are among the top, not to be intimidated. That’s something I learned. I went to the US with an FWO-fellowship and in the lab of Mike Hutton I was part of the team that found the gene progranulin I’d been looking for during my PhD. Then Mike left, and I had the opportunity to lead the lab. This simply illustrates the American way of ‘just doing it.’ I remember talking to my colleagues in Belgium then, and their amazement.”​

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©Jeremy Paterno

Rosa Rademaker

Rosa Rademakers started her academic journey at the University of Antwerp, where she got a BA in Biology and an MA in biochemistry. She stayed in Antwerp to follow this up with a PhD in the lab of Christine Van Broeckhoven. During her postdoc she traveled to the Mayo clinic in Florida, US. She moved through the academic ranks and became full professor in the Department of Neuroscience in Mayo Clinic in 2014. In 2019, she will join VIB as the new science director of  the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology. She is President of the International Society for Frontotemporal Dementias and is a member of the Medical Advisory Council of the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration. She has received the Paolo Gontijo Medicine Award and the Sheila Essey Award for ALS Research. She is also the recipient of the 2016 Potamkin Prize for Research in Pick’s, Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders of the American Academy of Neurology.