Researcher profile: Mehran Salehpour
THE PHYSICIST WHO IS INVESTIGATING THE REGENERATION OF HUMAN CELLS
Mehran Salehpour is a researcher in applied nuclear physics who operates in the borderland between nuclear physics and biomedicine. He has worked at Uppsala University for nine years and his research includes studying the regenerative properties of all human cells.
Mehran Salehpour came to Uppsala University in 1982 through an exchange programme with Sussex University. Even back then, he was working in the borderland between nuclear physics and biomedicine developing new methods for mass spectrometry of proteins.
He is currently working on the 10-year project, The Human Regenerative Map (a Linné project) financed by the Swedish Research Council. The project is a collaborative effort between Uppsala University and Professor Jonas Frisén’s group at the medical university Karolinska Institutet. The project involves examining human cell regeneration especially nerve cells in different parts of the brain, muscle cells in the heart, beta cells in the pancreas but also the immune system and fat metabolism.
“This is a complete mapping of human cells. One question, for example, is whether we generate any new cells in the brain, the heart or other critical organs during our lifetimes. Another interesting question is how cell regeneration is affected by illness or injury,” he says.
The project has been in progress for almost 7 years and has consisted of various parts. They spent the first three years on developing methodology. During the fourth year, they improved the accuracy of the measurement methods. Now they are analysing the actual samples from people who donated organs for research.
“One current question is the relationship between cell regeneration and brain-related diseases, so-called neurodegenerative diseases,” says Mehran Salehpour.
The research is interdisciplinary. Pathologists at Karolinska Institutet have access to a large biobank with bodies donated for research. From these, post mortem samples are taken which are passed on to cell biologists who sort them and extract pure DNA. Mehran Salehpour’s research group then receives the samples for chemical preparation and measurement using the tandem accelerator in Ångström Laboratory. The latest cells examined were microglia, which are immune cells in the brain.
“We use nuclear physics methods to solve biomedical problems. The field is called biomedical accelerator mass spectrometry. We measure isotopic ratios in various human tissues. In principle, anything can be analysed, for example, hair, blood, DNA, plaque in the arteries or any other parts of the body,” says Mehran Salehpour.
The last stage is to apply mathematical calculations and simulations using the Monte Carlo method for the obtained data. After this, conclusions can be drawn regarding the degree of regeneration in the cells.
“Results produced by The Human Regenerative Map are often reported in top-ranking scientific journals such as Cell and Nature,” says Mehran Salehpour.
Working with others in an academic environment is a part of his profession he very much enjoys.
“It’s fun to go to work. It really is a rich academic environment. There are people all around you who are extremely knowledgeable. This is of tremendous value for life quality.”
Mehran Salehpour believes that the reason he became a researcher was very much by chance. He has always been curious and had a thirst for knowledge but did not necessarily see himself as a scientist. He even spent 18 years away from academia which included time spent as a managing director in industry. And if the chance to return to the Ångström Laboratory had not turned up, he believes that he might well have remained in industry.
“Being a researcher is hard work. It’s quite like being self-employed. You have to fight for research funds without much expectation of success. At its best, only 15-20% of funding applications are successful,” he says.
Mehran Salehpour’s research can provide new fundamental information and he sees this as quite significant. Until recently, we did not know how human cell regeneration works to renew the brain or the heart. But we are now gaining new knowledge of these processes.
“Many textbooks still say that our brain is as old as we are. We now know that this is not the case. And thanks to the information produced by new research, it will one day be possible to make medication which induces cell regeneration in people suffering from a disease or trauma. It means a great deal to me that I have contributed to this new information on human physiology,” says Mehran Salehpour.
Mehran Salehpour was recently awarded the prestigious IBA Europhysics Prize 2015. He believes that major advances will be made in future in his field of research.
“Much can happen within regenerative medicine in the next few decades. Regrowing completely new organs or body parts is perhaps not going to happen in the near future. But one thing you can see on the drawing board already is that it might be possible to form new nerve cells for people with paralysis or that you can pharmacologically encourage cell regeneration in the brain for better mental health or help repair heart muscle cells after a heart attack,” he concludes.
FACTS - MEHRAN SALEHPOUR
Title: Associate Professor of Engineering Sciences specialising in ion physics
Lives: In Uppsala
Education: Basic education in Iran, upper secondary education and first degree in the UK, PhD in Uppsala, post-doc in the USA
Hidden talent: Still searching.
What other research do you find interesting?: The human psyche.
Most proud of: My four sons.
Least proud of: My voice in the bath.
Strength: Avoiding trivialities.
Weakness: Has a tendency to be lazy.
Wanted to be when I was a child?: Asterix