15 minutes with . . .

Anthony Hollander: a stem cell researcher

Authors: Amy Hardeley 

Publication date:  24 Feb 2010


Amy Hardeley talks to Anthony Hollander about the first tracheal transplant and the clinical future of stem cells

Name: Anthony Hollander

Position: Arthritis Research Campaign professor of rheumatology and tissue engineering and head of the department of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of Bristol

Biography: Professor Hollander has worked in cartilage biology and arthritis research for 20 years. However, it is his latest work in stem cells and bioengineering and his involvement in a tracheal transplant that has caught the media’s attention

How did you get to where you are today?

I wanted a career with purpose and meaning, where I could make a difference. I didn’t actually do very well at school and my teachers weren’t that encouraging. But I got to Bath University and there I came into my own, graduating with first class honours in pharmacology. I think I’m good at thinking up new ideas and not so good at regurgitating facts. I then did a PhD at Bristol University, postdoctoral training at McGill University, and won a lectureship at Sheffield University. At Sheffield, however, I began to become disillusioned with the potential of pharmaceuticals. I subsequently got the opportunity to collaborate with the world famous bioengineer Professor Robert Langer and since seeing the potential in tissue engineering, it has become my focus. I’ve continued this at Bristol University where I’m now head of my department.

How did you become involved in the tracheal transplant?

It was all down to Claudia Castillo. Her bronchus was severely damaged after having tuberculosis, endangering her life. Paolo Macchiarini, her surgeon, contacted us. He wanted to combine a number of scientific techniques, including mine, to grow a new tracheal segment for her. At first I was sceptical. Regulatory procedures usually mean it takes years for things to happen—although because Claudia’s life was in danger this burden would be reduced. Also, the techniques hadn’t been used together before. I decided that with some educated guesses it could work, however, so I agreed.

What was your role in the transplant?

I was responsible for taking Claudia’s bone marrow stem cells and growing chondrocytes. These were then flown out to Barcelona, with epithelial cells grown by Martin Birchall, where they were seeded onto a cadaveric trachea that had been decellularised to leave just a collagen scaffold. The trachea was then implanted into Claudia in June 2008, and the rest is history.

Did anything go wrong?

Yes, we were assured a week before travelling that we would be able to board but were refused passage because the cells were in more than 100 ml of liquid. Having 12 hours to transport the cells, we expressed our disapproval—the armed police were called. We somehow managed to find a friend of a friend who agreed to fly his plane from Germany to England and transport the cells to Barcelona.

How ethical is stem cell research?

There is a lot of legislation surrounding stem cells in the United Kingdom, and I have to say I have never had a critical email from anyone about my work. I am happy in my own mind and conscience that my work is justifiable and that I am working within the law and tolerance of society, so I’m satisfied with the ethics.

Ethics does affect my work, though. I was recently asked to appear on the BBC’s Newsnight to discuss the organ donation opt-out scheme and if we would need donation in a few years, but I refused as I thought it would give patients false hope.

Did you expect to be so successful?

I didn’t always have confidence in my academic abilities. On the first day of A levels the sixth form head told me I was very lucky to be there. In spite of this, however, I felt I had a lot to give the world. Getting my first at university and doing so well in research was an antidote. Underneath, though, there is part of me that feels maybe one day someone will discover that I am stupid. In my experience, however, a lot of academics have such thoughts. I think because I am so passionate about science I always knew I would achieve something.

What is the future of stem cell technology?

I think many therapies will emerge from this field. I’m not sure we will be able to grow organs. With the trachea we replaced just a segment and used cadaveric collagen. Also we were dealing with two cell types—there are something like 13 different cell types in the kidney that need to be oriented in a certain way. I think we may be able to develop segments of hollow organs such as the colon, blood vessels, and possibly nerves.

Any advice for students who want to pursue research?

First of all, only do it if you’re passionate about the research; don’t do it if you just want a piece of paper to your name. Be humble about it; if you haven’t done a PhD you’ll have to learn scientific skills from scratch from your scientific colleagues. Most medical academics have done an intercalated degree, which would give you some experience, but if you’re really serious about going into research I think you really need to do a PhD. And if all goes well, don’t waste it.

Competing interests: None declared.

Amy Hardeley medical student Bristol Medical School

 ah6630@bristol.ac.uk

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: