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Inspiring peopleChris Denning

The gene jockey
Lead of Regenerative Medicines and Stem Cells
Chris Denning
How would you explain your research?

I like to describe myself as a "gene jockey"! I work in genetic engineering to try to answer biological questions. My team and I turn ordinary human skin cells, for example, into stem cells that can then be engineered to develop into specific organ cells like heart cells that actually beat. Stem cells are multi-purpose. We all start life as a small bundle of stem cells that are “pluripotent” – with the potential to grow into bespoke cells that eventually form all the different parts of our bodies and its blood supply.

Stem cells are therefore the key to the possibility of growing new organs and tissue grafts to replace damaged or diseased tissue in people. We can also pinpoint faulty genes in stem cells derived from genetic disease carriers to model that disease and develop better treatments.

I like to describe myself as a gene jockey
What inspired you to pursue this area?

It was all a bit of an accident! My very Scottish chemistry teacher “Jock” was an inspirational character at my school in Bournemouth and I also loved biology. I seriously considered doing Medicine but was put off by the long medical training.

Ironically, I still ended up doing many years in higher education as I realised I couldn’t go very far in science without a PhD! This I did in gene therapy for cancer before working in Edinburgh on genetic modification of sheep and pigs. However, it was an amazing boot camp in human embryonic stem cells in the US that crystallised my ambition to work in biomedicine. Its potential in clinical healthcare now inspires and excites me hugely.

How will your research affect the average person?

Many of the new therapies we are working on are quite a long way off being used in the real world but some new drug delivery systems may be just a few years off the clinical trial stage. One day we hope to be able to do things like mend nerve damage to the spinal cord, grow new beating heart muscle to graft onto damaged hearts, regenerate diseased livers and lungs.

We also hope to use gene editing and reprogramming to treat people born with life-limiting genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. Degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are also targets for possible new treatments that could transform people’s lives.

Who would you most like to meet in your area?

That’s a tricky one.  Probably the biggest influence on my life is Nottingham alumna Christine Mummery who runs a world-class stem cell research lab in Holland. I pestered her to let me work with her for a sabbatical and she became my mentor and a generous collaborator. She says “you can’t take it to the grave!” meaning we have a duty to pass our scientific legacy on to the next generation. I want to create this ethos within our Research Priority Area at Nottingham.

I’ve also had super inspiration from the great David Attenborough. Watching him on TV instilled an interest in nature and biology. I heard him at a science talk and the passion he has is totally riveting and infectious. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

I think it would be to tell myself to strive for a better balance in my life. I can be a bit obsessive and driven but I’m getting better at realising that, actually, the people are just as important as the project. My group is quite big now with around 30 working for me and I’ve learned that you get more out of people if you listen more. 

One day we hope to be able to do things like mend nerve damage to the spinal cord and grow new beating heart muscle
If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

I absolutely adore natural history and travel so I would very happily just explore our beautiful planet. I have a passion for diving and underwater photography and there are many places on my bucket list. If I got fed up with exploring I’d probably go and work for an overseas charity in Africa or a relief agency. 

Where would you go back in time?

I’d be curious to go back to the early 1900s when the first Antarctic exploration was going on. I’m also fascinated by geology and volcanos so the eruption in Roman Pompeii would be another time-travelling destination… from a safe distance!

What research other than your own really excites you?

Geological exploration is fascinating, and so is going out into the solar system. My own work is at the cellular or sub-cellular level so it’s refreshing to think about planetary geology on a massive scale in terms of Earth’s history and its future..

You’re thrown 100 years into the future – what’s the first thing you’d look up?

I think by then regenerative medicine will be “old hat” so firstly I would look up how far we had managed to get into space! However, of course I would be curious to find out how my field has progressed. The most recent genetic technology we have now is like a pair of scissors at molecular level. It allows faster and more efficient gene editing so defective genes can be edited out of stem cells that could be put back into the patient to engineer out that disease.

This technology has been shown to work in China and we have now got the green light to work on human embryo gene editing in the UK. It’s controversial, and there are many ethical and technical hurdles, but in 100 years we may be correcting harmful gene mutations at source and eradicating both inherited genetic disease and other diseases like cancer. I’d be interested to see how far human race has pushed the search for health and longevity and whether it was worth it as we all have to die of something in the end!  

 

Global Research Theme
Health and Wellbeing

Research Priority Area
Regenerative Medicines and Stem Cells

Read Chris' full profile

Professor Chris Denning is Head of the Stem Cell Biology Unit at the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences. Chris also co-leads a British Heart Foundation Centre for Regenerative Medicine and specialises in stem cell therapy for cardiac medicine.

 

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