Vilchez is the first IRB Barcelona alumnus to receive the “Alumni of Excellence Award”. He obtained his PhD at the Institute in 2008 and now runs his own group at the CECAD-Cluster of Excellence in Cologne, Germany.
“Pleased and proud.” Upon receiving the award in September, Vilchez expressed his satisfaction and joked about remembering the good vibes of that day to warm him “in the cold winters in Germany”. He says that he has taken various things with him to Cologne, where he now leads up his own lab, among them IRB Barcelona’s “spirit of collaboration” and the attitude he learned here as a PhD student of not being afraid of what you cannot do. “Just go to a lab that can do it,” he says. An excerpt of the interview is included in an accompanying podcast.
Vichez’s research focus is aging. “All organisms age,” he explains, “and as a 2013 review on the subject highlights, there are nine hallmarks of aging. One of them is the loss of proteostasis—the ability to maintain the quality of the proteome.” Proteostasis is a very complex network of various pathways that interact to maintain protein homeostasis, the process through which protein integrity is conserved in a given cell in a specific moment.
“Losing this ability to maintain the quality of the proteome results in disrupted cellular functions,” he continues. “One of the hypotheses is that during the aging process, the loss of proteostasis causes protein damage, which begins to accumulate. This accumulation in turn affects cell functions and can trigger neurodegeneration, like we see in diseases such as Alzheimer or Parkinson, both of which usually have a late onset.”
After completing his PhD, Vilchez went to San Diego to study how proteostasis declines with age and how to delay it. After his postdoctoral training, he turned his attention to proteostasis in cells that cannot age, namely in embryonic stem cells. His hypothesis was that proteostasis is conserved in order to maintain immortality. “And indeed, we found that proteostasis in stem cells is enhanced, and it is when the cells begin to differentiate that they lose this stability,” he explains.
After mimicking stem cell proteostasis in somatic cells, his group found that these cells live longer and are more protected from age-related diseases.
“Our next step is modelling conditions like Huntington Disease with inducent pluripontent stem cells (IPS),” he tells in vivo, “and studying somatic stem cells”. These cells are also special because they regenerate tissues throughout the entire lifespan of organisms. “But at some point they age,” he explains. We have some projects focused on attempting to delay aging in these cells.” He is also working on the post-translational regulation of stem cells.
In summary, he wants “to discover how the aging mechanism works and see if we can delay it and improve quality of life.”
Vilchez also has a couple of tips for young students who want to excel in science. “Science is sometimes difficult, most experiments fail, and most of your hypotheses are not right. But you have to be persistent and not give up if you really like science. Keep an open mind and always be aware of new discoveries. And as Joan Guinovart always told us in the lab: ‘Think big!’ I [always] try to do so”.