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Professor of Neuroscience Gunnar Gouras

16 December 2011

Gunnar Gouras

Leaving New York for Lund, and the prestigious Cornell University for the less well-known Lund University, caused quite a few raised eyebrows. However, Professor of Neuroscience Gunnar Gouras is pleased with the move, even if a lot of things still feel new and confusing.

Gunnar Gouras is a doctor, Alzheimer’s researcher and the first professor to be directly appointed to his post in Lund. Appointing a professor directly means that a post is created especially for a certain person, without the usual time-consuming process of advertising the vacancy and obtaining the opinion of external experts. This new possibility was introduced in January this year and under the University’s rules is to be applied restrictively and only for top international researchers.

Gunnar Gouras has now been at BMC (Biomedical Centre) for just over six months. His room still looks bare and unfurnished, but this is not because he is new; it is a conscious move.

“When I left Cornell I had to throw away an incredible amount of paper. Now I want to make sure I never gather as much again”, he says.

Adapting to a new workplace always requires adjustments. Gunnar Gouras encountered a few stumbling blocks at the start, such as how long it took before he got a telephone, and that some necessary laboratory equipment on his floor was already booked up by other research groups.
He also found the financial system different and strange, with all costs having to be internally accounted and with having to pay for one’s office by the square metre. The Swedish job titles, forms of employment and scholarship rules are also new and confusing territory.

Gunnar Gouras doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss about the difficulties that newcomers face, because overall he is very pleased.

“I think Lund is a fantastic city and I have been made to feel very welcome”, he says.

In Sweden we are used to seeing the US as a country at the forefront in research. However, Gunnar Gouras thinks that Europe is now ahead in some respects. When it comes to Alzheimer’s, for example, the cell biology research is stronger in Germany and the research on biomarkers is stronger in Sweden. A great advantage for Sweden is having a health service that includes the entire population.

“There was a small hospital connected to Cornell, but it was an expensive private clinic, so its patients would not be representative of the population as a whole”, he says, praising the clinical Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research in Malmö and Lund.

“I hope to find clinical researchers here to collaborate with. We talk a lot about translational research in the US – research that goes all the way from the laboratory to the patient’s sickbed – but in practice it does not happen all that much. Here, however, you have some good examples, such as the research on Parkinson’s disease”, he says.

Besides the research opportunities, Gunnar Gouras moved to Sweden for private reasons. With a Swedish wife and a German mother, and many summer holidays spent in Germany during his childhood, he has long been attracted to Europe. When Parkinson’s researcher Patrik Brundin heard this, he quickly put forward Gouras’s name as a candidate for a post as a directly appointed professor. (The fact that Patrik Brundin is now moving in the opposite direction, to the US, was an unforeseen irony.)

Gunnar Gouras is a doctor at heart and has treated many Alzheimer’s patients. Treated them as far as possible, that is, because the disease can only be slowed, not cured. This is why he has invested more and more time in his research role.

“It feels so frustrating not to be able to help the patients as much as one would like to. All the suffering I have seen gives me a strong motivation to understand more about the disease”, he says.

Gunnar Gouras and his colleague Davide Tampellini (now also in Lund) have recently presented findings that could not only increase understanding of Alzheimer’s but completely overturn the established theories.

To put it simply, Alzheimer’s has been believed to be caused by the affected nerve cells secreting an excess of the substance beta-amyloid, which forms harmful ‘plaques’ in the brain. Pharmaceutical companies have therefore tried to find substances that reduce the release of beta-amyloid. Huge sums have been spent on drug studies, but none of the substances tested have had any effect on the disease.

Gunnar Gouras and Davide Tampellini have now shown that in the first stage of the disease the nerve cells secrete too little beta-amyloid. Instead of leaving the cells, the substance accrues inside the cells in a harmful way. The plaques do not occur until later through a complicated mechanism with several stages.

“There is a famous illustration that shows either a young lady or an old woman. The illustration is one and the same, but it can be viewed in different ways. It is the same with Alzheimer’s disease: we are seeing existing facts in a new way”, says Gunnar Gouras. He hopes that the new approach could lead to more successful attempts to find new cures.

- Ingela Björck

- Photo caption: Gunnar Gouras is the first professor to be directly appointed to his post in Lund.