VIB Alumni Camila Esguerra & her zebrafish

6 October 2016
Camila Esguerra has found a haven in Oslo. “This will – probably – be my home for a long time,” she assures. As a group leader at the Biotechnology Centre of Oslo, part of the University of Oslo, and with the intention of progressing from an associate to a full professorship at the School of Pharmacy in the future, she thinks long term.

Of course, there’s another reason why she and the Norwegians get along like peas in a pod: they are all fond of fish. Specifically zebrafish, in Camila’s case.

Why has the zebrafish been a recurring theme throughout your scientific career?
Zebrafish have a high genetic, pharmacological and physiological similarity to humans, and they have multiple advantages over rodent models. The fish larvae are small (less than 5 mm long) and optically transparent, which allows easy visualization of tissues. Adult zebrafish produce hundreds
of offspring per week, and the embryos develop fast. These features are combined together to form an ideal in vivo model suitable for medium-throughput phenotypic screening in microtiter plates. Behavioral analysis and electrophysiology are also possible on zebrafish larvae. One of the major advantages of this model however, is how easy it is for researchers to perform bioactivity tests of small molecules - compounds can simply be added to the water surrounding them.

When you relocated from Leuven to Oslo, you brought along your interest in epilepsy as well?
Absolutely. When I was in Leuven at the Department of Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences, we established several zebrafish seizure models, including one for Dravet syndrome (DS),
a severe early-onset form of epilepsy. Last year, we published a study that found that the serotonin agonist fenfluramine reduced epileptic seizures in one of the models we developed. In Oslo, I want
to further combine genetic and chemical approaches in zebrafish, not only to shed light on the mechanisms of seizure generation, epileptogenesis and treatment resistance, but also to apply our expertise to other neurological diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

From 2003 to 2006, you worked in the VIB lab of Désiré Collen and Peter Carmeliet after four years with Mermaid Pharmaceuticals in Hamburg. Isn’t that an unusual career path?
I already knew Peter Carmeliet from when we were both at the Whitehead Institute in Boston in
the early 1990s. I even worked with him for a short time. There was a rumor at the Whitehead
that I was a ‘good cloner’, so Peter sort of confiscated me. Ten years later, I was with Mermaid
and we ended up in the middle of the 9/11 period. We really had a hard time obtaining sufficient financing, so Désiré and Peter gave me the opportunity to build a zebrafish facility in Leuven. Actually, they were very generous because they also allowed me to finish my PhD - after normal working hours, of course. As a result, I actually graduated from KU Leuven.

You’ve been in Oslo now for a year and a half. Is there a difference between doing science in Belgium vs. Norway?
For many people, it seems that I’ve moved to the ‘periphery’ of science in Europe. But honestly,
it does not feel that way. The intense networking that occurs between labs in Norway and other Scandinavian countries should not be underestimated. It is considered a natural duty to find research partners in Norway, Sweden, Finland or Denmark. If you receive infrastructure funding, you are even obligated to engage in collaborations. The Scandinavian connection offers a large pool of opportunities and talent.

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Camila Esguerra