Nóra Lehotai has interviewed Magnus Ölander who is working in Barbara Sixt lab as a senior research assistant. He moved to Umeå directly after finishing his PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at Uppsala University. Now he works on a chlamydia project that allows him to develop his skills in drug discovery and machine learning.
Text: Nóra Lehotai
Magnus Ölander who is working in Barbara Sixt lab as a senior research assistant.
I am working on a drug discovery project to find new compounds that can combat infection by Chlamydia trachomatis.
Can you tell us about your role at MIMS, what are you working on?
”I have been a postdoc in the Barbara Sixt lab for a couple of years and now I am a senior research assistant. I am working on a drug discovery project to find new compounds that can combat infection by Chlamydia trachomatis. It is an obligate intracellular bacterium affecting a lot of people, resulting in more than 100 million cases per year globally. It is very common in Sweden as well, especially among young people since it causes a sexually transmitted disease. It can be quite easily treated, but usually with broad-spectrum antibiotics. These antibiotics kill everything in an uncontrollable way, meaning that they wipe out the normal microbiota in our intestine. The microbiota recovers after a while, but it does not necessarily grow back in the same way it was before. We also do not really know the downstream effects of harming the microbiota. Another problem is that antibiotic treatment against C. trachomatis can increase the pressure for resistance development in other pathogenic bacteria that happen to be present.”
”Through screening, we have found a set of highly potent compounds and now, in the second half of my project, we want to try to figure out how they work, their mode of action. I also really enjoy that this project allows me to develop my skills in machine learning. We have combined the data from our big compound screen with data from the literature on other compounds that people have tried against C. trachomatis and used molecular properties derived from chemical structures to develop machine-learning-based predictive models. We can then put an unknown structure into the model and it will tell us whether it is likely to be anti-chlamydial or not. We used the model to screen an online database of millions of compounds, and then experimentally tested a small number of predicted hits. The early results look quite promising, which is super cool since we could never screen that many compounds in the lab.”
How does your research connect to the fight against rising antimicrobial resistance?
”Clinical resistance for C. trachomatis has not been described yet but it could arise in the future because it is relatively easy to get resistant bacteria in the lab by keeping the bacteria with sub-inhibitory concentrations of the antibiotics.”
”If we, in the end, are able to make a sort of narrow-spectrum antibiotic that is more specific for Chlamydia infections, we would not need to apply broad-spectrum antibiotics as much, thus decreasing the risk of antibiotic resistance arising. Another potential use for our compounds could be to apply them in combination therapy with existing antibiotics, which could enable lower dosing.”
What were you doing before you joined MIMS and what attracted you to start a position here?
”This was my first postdoctoral position. I came here directly after finishing my PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at Uppsala University. My PhD project was about how the human liver and small intestine take up and process drugs. Before that, I was actually working for a couple of years at a small antibiotic development company here in Umeå, called Creative Antibiotics, a start-up company assisted by Umeå Biotech Incubator. Unfortunately, they lost funding in summer 2013 and that is when I started my PhD.
”I did my Master’s at Umeå University, in biotechnology with a medical profile. I was interested in antibiotics since then and when I saw the ad for this project in Barbara Sixt’s lab at MIMS, I thought that it was a cool combination of my previous interest of antibiotic development plus the sort of know-how about drug development and discovery that I got during my PhD. I thought that it was a very nice opportunity and since I have lived here before in Umeå, it was fun to come back.”
If you would not have your current profession, what do you think you would be doing?
”When I was a kid, I dreamt of being an archaeologist or a paleontologist. That interest has stayed with me ever since, so I think I would spend my time digging in the ground for old bones.”
What do you like to do in your free time?
”I have two small kids and they are most of my free time until they fall asleep. I love hanging out with them, they are super fun. When I do not hang out with the kids, I enjoy playing video games and reading science fiction and fantasy. I tried to get my wife into playing games together but so far, she is not that enthusiastic. I like biking as well as hiking in the forest.”
Tell us a little-known fact about yourself!
”Well, something that I really enjoy is to make things you can eat that take a really long time to prepare, like slow cooked stews, sourdough bread and I recently got into beer making. I have different hops and malts but I have not experimented so much with different yeasts yet. It is surprising how good it becomes! I enjoy following the long process for weeks, seeing it bubble here and there. The wheat sourdough I have has been alive since 2012. At some point, I would like to try to make cider and different types of beers because so far, I have made only ale.”