A ‘playground’ for excellence


UBC geneticist Josef Penninger believes collaboration is key to creating real impact in the life sciences

“The most important innovations come at the crossroads between research fields — between questions,” says Josef Penninger, a professor in medical genetics and the new director of UBC’s Life Sciences Institute (LSI).

“But for those innovations to happen, you have to create the right conditions. That’s what we’re developing in my lab and at LSI.”

Penninger came to UBC in 2019 as the Canada 150 Research Chair in Functional Genetics, having spent 15 years at the helm of Austria’s acclaimed Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA, part of the Austrian Academy of Sciences).

His likens his research, and science more generally, to a kind of “peace project.”

“It sounds sentimental, but I really do believe it,” he says of the comparison. “Science is international and while we all have our individual beliefs and backgrounds and ideas of what’s important to us or not, at the end of the day, science gives us a level playing field where we all have to answer one question together.”

Penninger’s own research frequently brings together multifaceted teams to study the underlying biological principles of human disease and its development. Through this collaborative approach, he has played an integral role in a number of ground-breaking discoveries in diverse medical fields.

One such discovery provided the first genetic insights into how the body regulates bone density, which led to the development of a drug that treats osteoporosis and also reduces patient bone-loss in cancer therapies. Related research from his team also led to new understandings on how lactating mammary glands are formed, which led, in turn, to additional understandings of how sex hormones and genetic predispositions can trigger breast cancer. A multi-national and multi-continental phase-III clinical trial is now underway for a therapy designed to prevent breast cancer among females with a high genetic risk of the disease.

Most recently, Penninger’s team successfully grew perfect human blood vessels in a petri dish. Given the central role of blood vessels in virtually all processes and organ systems of our body, this innovation could lead to advances in research of cardiovascular disease, wound healing, strokes, diabetes and cancer.

Interdisciplinarity and collaboration have been at the heart of Penninger’s research. He believes this approach is vital not only to build individual research projects, but also to develop the tools, technologies and platforms that advance the entire field of life sciences. Now at UBC, Penninger is committed to creating the conditions for researchers from different disciplines to collaborate on solutions to research questions together at LSI.

 “It’s like a playground,” he says. “Each scientist brings a child-like curiosity to the lab, but we have to give them the tools so they can learn and play and then because of that we can let them loose to do all the crazy things that could make a real impact.

“UBC has the right soil for this. There’s great faculty, great people and an environment that’s ready to make a difference.”


Photographs for this story were taken prior to COVID-19 social distancing requirements.