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Prof. Dr. Alexandru Babes

Prof. Alexandru Babe's specialty is the study of specialized nerve endings in the skin or other organs and how they recognize painful stimuli. (Image: Dr. Cristian Neacsu)

Winner of the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award and visiting researcher at FAU´s Institute of Physiology & Pathophysiology

In his research, the Romanian born Prof. Dr. Alexandru Babes currently focuses on the molecular mechanisms of sensory transduction in peripheral mammalian thermoreceptors and nociceptors. Using a combination of electrophysiological and imaging techniques, he has been involved in the characterization of cold-sensitive neurons in rodent dorsal root ganglia. Together with other researchers, he has shown that more than one neuronal population is involved in cold detection and they have described for the first time a novel type of cold-sensitive neuron with rapid adaptation to cooling stimuli.

Prof. Dr. Babes completed a Bachelor in Physics and a Master of Science in Neurobiology at the University of Bucharest. In 2002, he also received his doctorate in biology from the University of Bucharest with “Summa cum laude”. After his doctorate, he had been working at the Department of Pharmacology at Cambridge University as a post-doctoral research associate for more than half a year. Since 2008, Prof. Dr. Babes has been teaching and researching at the Department for Animal Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Bucharest as a Professor for Neurobiology.

Prof. Dr. Babes has been to FAU several times. He came to FAU for the first time in 2006, in the frame of a Postdoc Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In 2019, he was awarded the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This enables him together with Prof. Dr. med. Peter Reeh, Institute for Physiology and Patho-physiology at FAU, to carry out an opto-thermo-genetic research project.

What exactly sparked your interest in this field of research?

I am interested in how specialized nerve endings in the skin or other organs detect painful stimuli, or change in ambient temperature. I started this type of work almost 20 years ago under the guidance of my mentor, Prof. Gordon Reid, who discovered why certain neurons react to cooling. He initiated this line of research in our home department, at the University of Bucharest, and from then on, I stayed in this field. I could have done other things as well, as at the time I also had a collaboration with the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt am Main, investigating the biophysics of ion pumps and transporters. But I was immediately attracted by the putative translational aspects of working on sensory physiology, and pain in particular.

What were your reasons for choosing FAU as your host institution for a research stay abroad?

I have a long-standing collaboration with Prof. Peter Reeh from FAU, who I can fairly say is my second mentor in science. I first came here in 2006 with a postdoctoral Humboldt Research Fellowship, very excited to be able to work with Prof. Reeh, one of the most renowned and respected scientists in pain research. That year was the most formative in my research career and the very fruitful collaboration with Peter and other colleagues (Prof. Michael Fischer, Prof. Susanne Sauer, Dr. Andreas Leffler, Dr. Matthias Engel, Prof. Katharina Zimmermann) continued in the following years. While in Erlangen, I contributed to collaborative work, which ended up published in prestigious journals, such as Nature, Nature Medicine, Nature Communications, Gastroenterology, and Journal of Neuroscience.

How well known is FAU internationally in your field of research?

The Institute for Physiology and Pathophysiology of FAU is a hotspot of pain research with strong international visibility. Important work in the field of sensory neurophysiology was and is still carried out here, under the guidance of Professor Hermann Handwerker and Peter Reeh, and many discoveries were made on the function of pain-sensing neurons and their modulation by inflammation and nerve injury.

How do you find the interaction between researchers at FAU?

I have always been very impressed by the collegial atmosphere within the Institute, and by its culture of sharing ideas and expertise. Whenever I come here, which is quite often, almost yearly, I enjoy being able to discuss scientific matters with my colleagues and benefit from their expert advice. The group also has quite a strong international dimension: over the last few years, I interacted at the institute with researchers from Germany, of course, but also from Sweden, Brasil, Syria, China, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Japan. In addition, there are often scientific seminars and talks given by prestigious visiting scientists. So overall, I would say that the interaction between scientists here is truly beneficial, in particular for the young researchers.

Could you give us a short description of the project your research group is working on?

At the moment I am mostly interested in pathological photosensitivity. In certain genetic disorders, such as porphyria, patients immediately complain of pain and itch when their skin is exposed to sunlight and even artificial light. This indicates that somehow their pain-sensing neurons are being triggered by light in the UV or even visible range. With guidance from Prof. Peter Reeh, I am trying to uncover some of the mechanisms and signalling pathways involved in this abnormal hypersensitivity to light.

What is your main task within your research group/ your project?

While in my home institution, the University of Bucharest, most of my time is taken by teaching, administrative duties and running a research group, here at FAU I am able to turn back to actually carrying out experiments, which is very thrilling. Here, I have all the conditions not only to think, but also to perform experiments on a variety of cell types, including primary neuronal cells and heterologous expression systems, i.e. human cell lines, which are made to express the target ion channels and receptors we are interested in.

What are the most important results of your research at FAU to date?

Working under the guidance of Prof. Peter Reeh, and collaborating with a number of colleagues at the Institute (Profs. Sauer and Fischer and Dr. Kichko, to name just a few), we were able to make progress in understanding the mechanisms underlying the light-induced pain in porphyria patients and in patients suffering from the rare Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome. We found out that two ion channels known to be involved in pain signalling are also activated by UV light when certain metabolites are present in excess, which is what happens in these genetic diseases.

What benefits can society in general expect as a result of your research?

At the Institute of Physiology, we are carrying out primarily basic research, aimed at understanding how the peripheral nervous system works in normal conditions, but also under pathological situations, such as inflammation, nerve injury and disease. While we do not expect that our findings should have immediate consequences for the welfare of patients, we are confident that our work paves the way to better understanding of disease mechanisms and to potential therapeutic approaches, by identifying putative targets for active pharmacological compounds. For example, antagonists or blockers of the two ion channels mentioned above, some of which are already in clinical trials, could be used to alleviate the pain experienced by porphyria patients.

What were your first (and subsequent) impressions of the Erlangen-Nuremberg region?

Since 2006 I was very happy to be able to spend on average a couple of months every year in Erlangen, with financial support from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and from FAU itself, and therefore I had plenty of opportunity to explore the region. Moreover, in the last seven years I was accompanied by my wife and two sons, who are now aged 12 and 9, and I can confirm that Erlangen is extremely family-friendly. We all enjoyed visiting the cultural objectives in Nuremberg, Bamberg, Rothenburg and Wuerzburg, but also taking long walks in the forests around Erlangen and elsewhere in the Franconian area.

Can you already tell us a highlight, a moment from your stay, which you find particularly memorable?

On the professional level, perhaps the most memorable event for me was the Symposium organized to honour Prof. Peter Reeh on his retirement from teaching duties at FAU. I was extremely honoured to have been invited to participate and give a talk about our work on this occasion, alongside some of the truly first-rate scientists in our field of research from Germany, the UK, the US and Sweden.

What are your favourite places at FAU and in Erlangen or Nuremberg?

I would say that, apart from experimenting in the Institute of Physiology and Pathophysiology, I most of all enjoy playing football with my sons in the evening in the Schlossgarten, right at the back of the Institute actually.

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

I would like to take this opportunity and thank Peter for his mentorship over the last more than 13 years, for all the clever ideas, which he generously disseminates, and for the permanent support not only my work here, but also my work back home in Romania. Research in my country is far from being a priority and for many years research funding has been inconsistent with the international standards. There were many times when I seriously considered quitting research altogether and focusing on teaching or something else entirely, but somehow at those exact times there was a phone call or e-mail from Peter, and my enthusiasm was rekindled and my career rescued. I would also like to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation who provided me with the financial support to carry out interesting work and present my results at international meetings. I am extremely happy and honoured to have been appointed Alexander von Humboldt scientific ambassador in Romania, and in this capacity I will do my utmost to provide young researchers in my country with information and advice on how to benefit from the Foundation’s generous support.

Thank you for the interview, Prof. Dr. Babes.

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