Dr Vicky MacRae on bone formation and calcified arteries
Similarities and differences of bone formation and calcified arteries, and the importance of a happy work environment.
In this interview, Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska talked to Dr Vicky MacRae about her work in bone formation and studying why and how blood vessels become calcified, and how this knowledge might contribute to developing new therapeutics.
Could you tell me about your research in a nutshell?
My work is on calcification biology, which means looking at the build-up of calcium salts in body tissue and blood vessels. One aspect of this is looking at the physiological process of calcification in bones, looking at how bones grow, develop and harden. Another aspect is looking at the pathological calcification that you can get in soft tissues like when blood vessels or cardiac valves harden.
These two processes share many similarities, as many of the processes that occur when bones form also happen when blood vessels calcify. However, there are also some very distinct differences. What I am really interested in is understanding the mechanisms and pathways underpinning these two different processes.
How can your work be applied in the “real world”?
Vascular calcification currently has no therapeutic strategy in the clinic. There is no therapy yet, so hopefully by understanding these pathways more, we can open up new areas for a pharmaceutical approach.
At the moment, the approach to cardiac valve calcification is to replace the valves with prosthetic valves. Similarly, the primary approach to battle calcification of arteries is surgery. In an ideal world, we would understand the mechanisms more to further contribute to advancing the discovery of new drugs to treat the calcification.
How did you become interested in this field?
I’ve always been very interested in muscle biology, which my PhD focused on. After that, my postdoctoral research focused on understanding how the bone functions and develops, which I really enjoyed working on.
Following that, there was an opportunity for me to apply for funding for a fellowship to develop my own independent area. I decided to take the knowledge that I had from working on bones and combine that with vascular biology. That is how I ended up working on what I do now.
What are the challenges of working as a scientist?
Challenges as a scientist… there are many small things! When things don’t work the first time it is all about adapting your protocols and troubleshooting. This is always a challenge but it is also very satisfying when it works.
Do you have a favourite project from your time here?
I really enjoyed working on a project where we managed to show a potential link between testosterone and vascular calcification. We found that the effects of testosterone were potentially driving vascular calcification, explaining why men might be at higher risk of heart disease.
The research showed that testosterone acting on the vascular wall can cause the tissue to thicken and harden. The whole project was extremely interesting and we were able to see the effects in both an in-vitro system and by using an animal model.
What do you really enjoy about your job?
A part of this job that I really love is working with my group, the students and the postdoctoral researchers. Seeing the students go from the beginning to the end of their theses, developing themselves and becoming part of the group, is very rewarding. I think that’s a really lovely part of this job. The researchers and the team work so well together. Seeing a student or a postdoctoral researcher achieve success, publish papers or presentations, gain new skills and advance to the next stage of their career is amazing. A happy work environment is so important. At the end of the day, you are at work for at least 35 hours a week!
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
My honours project at university, which was actually based at the previous Roslin Institute building, was what made me want to continue into research. I had always liked biology at school and I found my honours project focusing on chicken muscle really fascinating. I decided to continue down that route, I had really enjoyed the research and I liked the experience of doing a project. I knew I wanted to do more of that.
And finally, if you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
That’s a difficult one. Maybe a lawyer, or working in the voluntary sector, or medicine. I also find politics very interesting… There are too many options!