“We fell in love with the city”

Stem Cell Researcher Ludovic Vallier is a new Max Planck Fellow at MPIMG

September 02, 2022

Ludovic Vallier, who recently moved to Berlin, will set up a lab at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics (MPIMG) in September 2022. Here, he plans to focus on basic research into the stem cell biology of the liver, closely collaborating with the researchers of the MPIMG. Vallier joined the Berlin Institute of Health at the Charité (BIH) as Einstein Professor and Group Leader earlier this year.

Vallier is an expert in pluripotent stem cells and organoids and plans to make further steps towards application of his research to the clinic. For example, he and his team will optimize the production of therapeutic liver cells that can replace damaged tissue of the organ. The goal is to acquire the knowledge necessary to generate liver cells in vitro. Such cells could then be used not only to replace diseased liver tissues but also to improve key hepatic function for additional therapeutic applications.

Alexander Meissner, Managing Director of the MPIMG, is delighted to welcome Ludovic Vallier at the Institute: “Ludovic is an outstanding researcher in the field of human stem cells and cell differentiation and a perfect addition to the Berlin scientific network – both working on regenerative medicine as well as stem cells biology. We are thrilled about his appointment as Einstein Professor at BIH and are particularly pleased to also have been able to enlist him as a Max Planck Fellow for our Institute.” 

Vallier was appointed a Max Planck Fellow by the President of the Max Planck Gesellschaft (MPG) in July, 2022. The Max Planck Fellow program is intended to promote cooperation between outstanding university professors and researchers of the MPG. The appointment is initially limited to a period of five years.

Q & A with Ludovic Vallier

Q: What is your research all about?

A: I want to understand human development and especially the developmental steps which allow the liver to become functional after birth. 

For that, we use human induced pluripotent stem cells (hIPSCs) and primary organoids. Organoids are three-dimensional structures that can be cultured in the dish and we derive them directly from the human liver. They are grown as a 3D ball of cells that are representative of the organ. Stem cells and organoids are model systems, which are nicely complementing each other. 

Then, we combine these models to obtain the knowledge necessary for producing cell types in vitro that are interesting for clinical applications. Using these cells, we are modeling liver diseases in the dish and are developing cell-based therapies as well. We use the basic knowledge that we are gaining from looking at human development to develop a platform that allows us to address major clinical needs.

How much progress did you make so far?

We have succeeded in generating cholangiocytes and hepatocytes, which are the main cell types of the liver. We will proceed to develop a cell-based therapy based on this approach and are already collaborating with different biotech companies to develop a product that might one day end up in the clinic. 

What's more, we would like to generate mini-organs – a kind of artificial liver in vitro. The next step is to generate artificial cells that not only replace functions but bring new functions. This would help improve the performance of the liver to protect people against the effects of fat accumulation, alcohol abuse and so on. 

Why are you interested especially in the liver?

In the past, we also worked on a lot of different organs: the gut, the pancreas, the lung, and the liver. But the liver really is the place for discovery. 

Liver disease has always had a stigma because it was commonly associated with alcoholism. The main cause of liver disease – at least in the past – was alcohol abuse. Since this was considered a self-inflicted illness, there was limited interest to find therapies or even study the organ. 

This might have been true for many years, but the landscape is changing extremely fast at the moment with major discoveries every month. Furthermore, there is a new type of liver disease: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) that is associated with diabetes and obesity. 

We have a world-wide pandemic of this disease right now. In fact, it is the second-most important indication for liver disease and could surpass alcohol-related liver disease in the next ten to twenty years. In the UK and US, 33 percent of the population have a fatty liver. Sure, only a small portion of these will progress to full liver disease, but nonetheless the number of patients is increasing very rapidly. 

There is no treatment and there is also a need to increase our basic knowledge of liver biology, development, and so on. This is why this is such an exciting field right now. A lot of groups are working on the liver and its associated diseases. It is really interesting to be in this field: there is a lot of freedom and there are a lot of questions you can ask. And there is a clear clinical need. 

Why did you choose Berlin for your new adventure?

We fell in love with the city! We discovered Berlin during the interview process and we just love the place. Aside from the well-known cultural and social aspects, Berlin is really booming in terms of scientific projects and research programs and there is a strong vision towards translational and biomedical discovery. There is a lot going on right now. I am really excited to join this development. 

In Cambridge, we did a lot of basic research and more recently, we have been reaching a stage where we can bring a number of applications to the clinic. Berlin and the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) in particular are offering plenty of opportunities to do just that. 

We will still keep up our basic research at the MPIMG, where I was appointed as a Max Planck Fellow. The Fellow position is a means for cooperation between Max Planck Institutes and university research and entails setting up a small group at a Max Planck Institute – the MPIMG in this case. 

The plan is to have around five people in Dahlem, including a permanent postdoc to start with. There will be lots of exchange with the BIH: People going back and forth, especially for collaborations. This setup allows us to look into questions of translational and basic research at the same time.

How did you find your way into research and where does your fascination for science come from?

I was always interested in asking questions to understand biology. And I wanted to do a job that allows me to do different kinds of activities and to have intellectual challenges. Science is the perfect field for all of that. Being a scientist is not a normal job, because you need to write, to design experiments, to be a good communicator, and a lot of other different things. It's a really exciting job. I can get bored very quickly and in science, you never get bored! 

About Ludovic Vallier

Ludovic Vallier earned his PhD at École normale supérieure of Lyon, studying the mechanisms that control the cell cycle in mouse embryonic stem cells. After a short detour into the biotech industry, he joined the Department of Surgery at the University of Cambridge, where he is Professor for Regenerative Medicine and Director of the Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre hIPSCs Core Facility. Effective July 2022, he accepted a W3 Einstein Strategic Professorship for Stem Cells in Regenerative Therapies at the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH).

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