Alternation between clinical practice and research
Martin Ridderstråle commutes to work on his bike every day. You have to practice what you preach when you are a professor of obesity and overweight.
At home, he has four children aged 3 to 18, and the dropping off and picking up of at day-care and school have to fit into your schedule even if you are a professor and run a clinic. “When I get home, I don’t have time to go to the gym. Biking is a way of incorporating physical activity into my daily schedule,” says Martin Ridderstråle. Sometimes he bikes with others, but he prefers to ride on his own and appreciates the time this gives him to reflect: “When I bike, I think, or talk to myself, and I wind up or down,” he explains. When he was younger, Martin Ridderstråle played in a band as well as painted and sang. “But, that takes up too much time, it’s not practical,” he says.
Martin Ridderstråle is equally committed to the Clinical Department of Endocrinology at Skåne University Hospital in Malmö and Lund in his role as clinical manager, and to research in his role as a professor linked to Lund University Diabetes Centre. In fact, he has always alternated between clinical practice and research, or combined the two.
He knew already at the age of nine that he wanted to become a doctor. This was not an easy choice and he has always liked a challenge. “I still remember the time and place when I decided”, he says. At ’high school’, Martin Ridderstråle attended a science based programme at Spyken in Lund, and the summer before he started his medical training he signed up for summer research school which was arranged by industry and Folkuniversitetet (adult education training). Under the supervision of professor Per Belfrage he initiated a project looking at how sugars are absorbed by fat cells, something which he continued during his studies.
PhD student at Harvard
A few years in to his medical degree he took some time out and spent six months as a PhD student at the diabetes unit at Harvard University. Speaking of his time in the USA, Martin Ridderstråle says he gained a completely different view of problem solving: “In Sweden, we prepare thoroughly, apply for funding and possibly also go through with our proposal. In the US, action speaks louder than words. ‘Don’t talk about it – just do it!’ Money was never an obstacle. They just said: ‘Don’t talk about it, don’t think about it. There’s a problem. No one will solve it for you or for humanity for that matter’ …” For Martin Ridderstråle, this meant that it became easier to take on several work tasks at the same time, without becoming distracted. “I was able to do research and study at the same time, and in the same way, it’s possible to work clinically and be a manager at the same time as you do research.”
Defended his doctoral thesis on insulin and the molecular mechanism of growth hormones
In 1997 he graduated from the medical programme and the same semester he defended his doctoral thesis on insulin and the molecular mechanism of growth hormones. Leif Groop was on the examining committee and he subsequently asked if Martin wanted to join his group in the Department of Endocrinology.
Said and done. And, at the same time as he did his post doc with Leif Groop, he also fulfilled his residency requirements. He then proceeded with his own projects and received funding from the Swedish Research Council, which made it possible to employ first one PhD student, and then another.
In 2004, he became an associate professor.
The link to diabetes has been the main thread throughout his career. "Research is a generic activity. It can be applied to any topic and makes it more interesting and relevant".
At the start, Martin Ridderstråle’s research focused on what types of genes are responsible for obesity and insulin resistance. Lately, new questions have evolved: “If you are of normal weight, what is it that determines if you become obese? If you are obese, who becomes ill? If you are ill, what can you do to get well? Are there identifiable markers that can aid us in providing the right treatment to the right person?
In his current research project, Martin Ridderstråle compares the patient’s values before and after weight loss and again after six months at stable weight. Questions asked include: What happens to the patients’ bodies? What happens to the expression of the genes in their fatty tissue? What happens to the metabolome?
Driven by challenges
Throughout his career, Martin Ridderstråle has been driven by challenges and offers. “I don’t say no often, and I don’t plan for what will happen in ten years time. But, if we today ask the question of WHAT we should do when someone becomes ill, then we can ask HOW we should do this in the future. That way, we are able to use the fact that we know WHAT we need to do more efficiently,” he explains.
As clinical manager he views experiences gained from both research and clinical practice as necessities. “We need these to understand the operation. Besides, I'm not sure I would’ve liked having to make the choice,” he says and refers to Claude Bernard, the father of translational research, who lived in the 1800s and who meant that medical science does not end in the hospital, it is merely where it begins. “You have to take your hypothesis to the lab and then bring the solution back to the patient,” Martin Ridderstråle concludes.
Text: Sara Liedholm/Camilla Franks