World-class Research at The University of Nottingham
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Inspiring peopleJames Dixon

Discovering ways to cure and repair
Researcher in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cells
Dr James Dixon
How would you explain your research?

My research is focused on making personalised medicines to treat diseases either as drugs that will be active only in specific tissues or organs or the body, or as engineered replacements of tissues created from the patient’s own cells. Just recently, for example, we’ve developed a new and efficient way of delivering therapeutic molecules into damaged cells using small proteins that target and bind to the cell’s sugar coating (heparin sulphate).

This discovery will hopefully lead to a new class of specifically targeted drugs for diseases like cancer and genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. Stem cell technology is also moving pretty fast and tissue engineering techniques are moving towards using stem cells to grow new tissues to graft on to damaged organs.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

I’m originally from Nottinghamshire and was fascinated by the concept of evolution and the development of organisms. I studied genetics at Edinburgh and completed my PhD at Imperial, London. I returned to Nottingham working for a spin-out company at the Medical School, looking at the evolution of stem cells, before joining the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform at the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences. I see scientific research as the closest modern-day profession to being a global explorer – the pursuit of discovery, and I find that very exciting and rewarding.

As I scientist you are constantly thinking about our work and what we should do next. It’s always exciting to me, planning and doing the work, acting on my knowledge and intuition, supervising my team and waiting for the results. It’s quite all encompassing, and it’s very difficult to switch off and to achieve a healthy work/life balance.

I see scientific research as the closest modern-day profession to being a global explorer
How will your research affect the average person?

My research is in its infancy but we hope that by using the systems we have developed we can create and test new drugs that can be used as treatments for diseases such as cancer and inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy. I would hope that our research and my team’s hard work will have significant impact.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

We’ve had a number of "eureka" moments within our team. Looking down the microscope and seeing that the system works with your own eyes is tremendously rewarding, especially when it is the culmination of many years’ work which has not always been so successful. 

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Only do this type of work if you really want to make a difference and you are excited by the potential of the research and the exploration process. You will not be hugely well paid, and you will have to work hard but it will ultimately pay off if you commit yourself to it.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

Translating technology that we have developed in the lab to become tested and used to treat patients. This is rightly a time-consuming, rigorous and expensive process. Many of the new tools that are used in research have so much potential to revolutionise medicine and people’s lives. The challenge is to fully realise that potential.

Who would you most like to meet in your area?

At conferences, I’ve met the co-discoverer of DNA structure, James Watson, on a visit to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US. I’ve met Shinya Yamanaka, the Nobel Prize winner who co-discovered that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent (iPS cells). Another hero I’ve met is Bob Langer, who is at the forefront of medical biotechnology. I’m lucky to have the chances to meet these famous names at international meetings in the course of my work. 

Many of the new tools that are used in research have so much potential to revolutionise medicine and people’s lives
What advice would you give to your younger self?

To do Medicine at university; I’d certainly be earning more money by now but I think as I enjoy my research here at Nottingham probably more than purely clinical I would have steered down a more research-driven career. 

If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

I’ve often thought about moving to something like finance and making significant money in the city. As scientists we do very complicated work so I think academics could cope with the complexes of high finance, however most academics are not driven by money. There are similarities with the gambling aspect of making money in the markets in that I have to weigh up scientific ideas and resources to push either less exciting but more likely to work projects, or more risky but lucrative projects. 

If you could go back in time where would you go and why?

The 60s in London sound like they were exciting. But I would have to have a less full-on career so I could enjoy that famous party era. The American 1920s always sound glamorous to me, and I would be fascinated to visit the Victorian times when industrialisation was moving so fast. 

What research other than your own really excites you?

I’m interested in the big particle physics projects right now that are being funded in the EU. I find the idea of fusion power really exciting and the current work to scale up a fusion reactor. I’m a doubter when it comes to the scaling up of renewable energy and think being clever with nuclear power is the more realistic long-term solution to the planet’s energy needs and climate change. 

If you could jump 100 years into the future, what’s the first thing you would look up?

I look at ResearchGate like most people look at Facebook So, knowing me, I’d look up my own profile and see how well or badly I’d done, and then at my peers’ profiles out of curiosity. Then I’d see how far our field had progressed. Maybe in 100 years we’ll have turned some of the science fiction of regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy into fact. I hope that would be the case, the science is very fast moving towards new therapies.

Global Research Theme
Health and Wellbeing

Research Priority Area
Regenerative Medicine

Read James' full profile

Dr James Dixon is a UK Regenerative Medicine Platform Senior Research Fellow in Stem Cell Technologies at the Wolfson Centre for Stem Cells, Tissue Engineering and Modelling in the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences. He is a developmental and stem cell biologist with a lifelong curiosity for cell biology and genetics.





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