Per Artursson is seeking new scientific paths
9 December 2020
Standing on the shoulders of giants, we will allegedly discover the way forward, so if one would ever cross our path, it would be a mistake not to try the view. Per Artursson, Professor of Dosage Form Design and Giant of Pharmaceutical Sciences, works at Uppsala Biomedical Centre, and the perspectives offered are undeniably interesting.
"No bastard who received the Nobel Prize has written anything worth reading afterwards," Ernest Hemingway is said to have muttered when receiving the news that the Swedish Academy had just awarded him the cultural world's most prestigious recognition. True or not, the prophecy fit well with Hemingway's own writing - and perhaps it is fortunate that so very few of us need to relate to some form of legend status. Nevertheless, some people receive the honor, most recently Per Artursson, Professor of Dosage Form Design, who in the autumn of 2020 was appointed Giant of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
“I prefer to see it as an acknowledgement that I still deliver the goods. Above all I appreciate that so many have paid attention to our group's scientific contributions. For the special issue of the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences that highlights our work, the editors received more than fifty texts from around the world, which is far more than I could have imagined. At the same time, I have reached the point in my research career where I am now more pleased with the successes of former students than my own. Like when two of my former PhD Students were recently appointed professors. Or, as recently as yesterday, when one of our junior researchers received a national award.”
An afternoon in Per Artursson's company is an unpredictable journey. The joy of discovery that continues to put its mark on his research quickly puts color to the conversation as well: Education, internationalisation, the future of the academy, the menu is diverse and spiced with sharp analyses. The desire to follow and develop his thoughts and ideas has likely followed from a young age. A biography of Per mentions daily discussions about politics and news in his boyhood home in Karlskoga. The same text also describes the adult professional's uninterrupted search for new scientific horizons.
“What I value most in the academic environment is the freedom to allow space for curiosity. Our group has had the privilege to try our fortunes along many unknown tracks, and if I for a moment look in the rearview mirror, I think as our main achievement that we have made an impact in every new direction. I sometimes get the question if I have ever regretted that I thereby also abandon my place among the world's most quoted in a specific discipline. In our performance-oriented profession, this objection is perfectly reasonable, but for me, the lure of new waters has always outweighed the protection of old hunting grounds.”
This, for the research world, somewhat unconventional attitude raises eyebrows also far beyond his own corridors. Already in the introductory lines of the above-mentioned special issue of the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, it is reflected on the driving forces that has taken Per Artursson so incomparably far from the breakthrough of the early 90's with the groundbreaking results on Caco-2 cells - articles that still belong to the journal's most quoted ever. Three decades later, his career includes more than 200 publications and 30,000 citations in a variety of fields. “The truth is that the course changes are necessary for Per. To find new energy and not to get bored”, the reasoning ends. There is little to object to this. Except that the truth often contains several dimensions.
“The famous cancer researcher George Klein once said that a good research group takes care of itself, and that's where I feel we are. In our relatively small environment, every new recruitment must fit perfectly, and my starting point is to always hire people who are smarter than myself. We need motivated employees with the ability to raise their gaze, and over the years, many remarkable persons have begun their careers in our laboratory. I myself have learned the importance of challenging early in a permissive environment. To raise issues and let our younger colleagues make themselves heard in the conversation. Ideally, I also prefer that they go out into the world. USA, Europe, travel anywhere, as long as you gather impressions beyond our own little pond.”
As expected, Per did not hesitate when the opportunity to spend 1996 in The Woodlands knocked. Here, less than half an hour's drive north of Houston, Texas, the Artursson family arrived to meet a business climate characterised by financial strength and demands for success. With a focus on drugs for gene therapy, he laid the foundation for, upon returning to his home country, helping to establish the field in Sweden. He also brought with him perspectives that had yet not been found in Uppsala, but which today, a quarter of a century later, are beginning to gain a foothold in the Swedish model.
“My then six-year-old daughter participated in gymnastics in the USA. She had talents and made progress, but when it was time to compete, the coaches let the children they believed in the most for the day represent the team. The others assisted on the sideline, and then they all grew together in the joy of what they realised were common successes. At Uppsala University, there is the stated goal of placing high in international rankings. Absolutely, but if we are to aim for the top, we must dare to tear down glass ceilings and allow at least some form of elitism.”
The reasoning slides into leadership and the diametrically opposite views of the managerial role that prevails between academia and industry. Where larger corporations train their future leaders according to meticulously crafted plans, the universities appoint their managers with short notice and leave them with a few percent salary increase. "We need to become more professional. Plan our appointments in advance. Work with leadership training, parallel learning and knowledge transfer", states Per. The further the conversation goes, the clearer a person open with his opinions emerges. It is refreshing and uninterruptedly interesting. "I would never succeed as a politician," he admits, "but I am always careful to distinguish between issue and person." Again, it is difficult to have objections, especially since not even Per Artursson gets a free pass in his own visions.
“Stepping into the future presupposes that we senior researchers are prepared to let forward the next generation. This applies not least in teaching. Swedish universities today have the lowest number of teacher-led hours per student in Europe. Thus, we have to compete with quality, and to sharpen our educations further, we need to attract young, motivated teachers with the abilities to bring in new knowledge and influences. Of course, I realize that it is not in our human nature to step aside, but again, it is a matter of looking beyond your own ego. To accept that none of us is irreplaceable. That the important thing is not what we do, but why.”
Bit by bit, the image falls into place. The relatively complex portrait painted by colleagues - determined and competitive, but also spontaneous and generous - slowly get clear contours. Let’s give the word to Kathleen Giacomini, a researcher at the University of California, who states the Zen Buddhist wisdom "How you do something is how you do everything." After countless alpine vacations with the Artursson family, she has her opinion clear: “Per is an extraordinary downhill skier who is looking for the most difficult challenges. Deep fresh snow adds an extra dimension. Good skis are appreciated, but the most important equipment is and remains the brain. Only when the last lift is closed does he lean back on the sofa and tell warmly about his students, friends and children in Sweden”. In the piste as it is in the laboratory. But there is still one last piece missing before the puzzle is complete: How then will a newly appointed giant actually move forward in his field?
“In addition to our ongoing research and the platform for optimisation and profiling of drugs that we run in collaboration with SciLifeLab, we have recently received three European grants that open many exciting doors for us. At the age of 64, my time is of course not unlimited, nor is it crucial that my ideas should be explored. What really matters is that pharmacy develops, and as long as our work delivers, we will continue our journey of discovery.”
Facts: Per Artursson
Title Professor of Dosage Form Design, Uppsala University.
Currently Appointed Giant of Pharmaceutical Sciences by the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the world's oldest pharmaceutical journal.
Lives In central Uppsala
Discusses Current Events, is an insatiable news consumer, everything from politics to culture goes down.
I remember meeting Torbjörn Fälldin, former prime minister of Sweden, who visited one of our graduate schools. I found him initiated, quick-thinking, analytical and far from the image that followed him.
Qualities I appreciate Openness and honesty, both professionally and privately
Finally, I want to recommend everyone To look up and see what is larger than yourself for the common good, but remember to distinguish between issue and person.
- Lab Artursson online URL
- A tribute to Professor Per Artursson (Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences)
- Per Artursson's Major Contributions to the Caco-2 Cell Literature in Pharmaceutical Sciences (Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences)
- Giants of Pharmaceutical Sciences