George Adrian Calin received both his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at Carol Davila University of Medicine in Bucharest, Romania, where he started cytogenetics work with Dr Dragos Stefanescu. After completing cancer genomics training in Dr. Massimo Negrini’s laboratory at University of Ferrara, Italy, he became a postdoctoral fellow at Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA, in Dr. Croce’s laboratory. He moved with the Croce lab to Ohio State University where he was an Assistant Professor leading studies on the roles of microRNAs in cancer initiation and progression as well as the mechanisms of cancer predisposition, a focus he maintains today as an Associate Professor at University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, TX.
I met Dr. Calin about three years ago in Columbus while I was working for a research products company. A few minutes into our meeting I couldn’t help but think that my industrial competitors were the least of my worries. This guy was hungry! Do a PubMed search and you’ll see for yourself. If you’ve ever listened to Dr. Calin present at a conference you know that he’s one of the most passionate researchers and engaging speakers out there. We caught up with him as he was packing up his lab and moving to M.D. Anderson in Houston.
George Calin Interview
EpiGenie: Hi Dr. Calin, this portion of our website is designed to feature more information about the people working in the field of epigenetics. We’ve read what’s available about your background and many of your publications which are all impressive, but we would like to know more about you, your earlier years, where you grew up. Can you tell us a bit?
Calin: I was born in a country where genetics was considered a reactionary science so nobody was allowed to learn too much about it. In a communist country, the Russians were contending that genetics was an American reactionary science, didn’t make much sense, and wasn’t true, so I was studying by myself I think for seven to eight years. I studied genetics from the age of seventeen. I had a very strong interest in understanding biology, biochemistry and so on.
EpiGenie: Given the environment in Romania when you were growing up, I imagine that there was a lack of materials that would allow you to learn about genetics. What was the motivating factor to get into the field? Calin: You know I was curious. I wanted to know more about something that wasn’t allowed. I liked genetics and it was easy for me to understand.EpiGenie: I understand that your passion for genetics might have gotten you into to trouble with the local police in Bucharest. Care to expand?
Calin: Going each week at the British Council, one of the few places where in the Communist Bucharest you could find Nature, Science or Cell was considered as too much liberty for a young 18 years old high-school student. I am really happy that my Romanian colleagues have now, a free access to all the needed information.
EpiGenie: Your career started off in cytogenetics and you’ve said your initial exposure to non-coding RNA was very lucky. How did you transition into studying non-coding RNA?
Calin: Carlo Croce’s laboratory was studying the 13q14 deletions in chronic lymphocitic leukemia for more than six years when I arrived, in late 2000, in his laboratory. None of the 10 or so laboratories scattered around the world and working with this region were successful to identify the culprit gene(s) located in this frequently deleted chromosomal region. As a gastroenterologist and emergency physician with a short molecular genetics training, I was not contained between the borders of “classical” thinking in genetics. In this way, the publication of the results of cloning hundreds of microRNAs in late 2001, was the perfect stimulus for me: I was in the right moment, in the right place. Sometimes, you have to be lucky…
EpiGenie: You gave up your career as an MD in 1996. What was the main motivation to drop medicine and focus on research?
Calin: United States is the place where to be performant, you must be focused. Sometimes I miss my previous work with patients, but life in science is exciting too. Each day is really different and you have to solve different scientific problems. Your brain is working continuously for something that you really enjoy. Furthermore, if the discoveries “come” to your life, then the change from clinics to science is worth it.
EpiGenie: Some of your earlier papers highlighted the microarray and qRT-PCR methods you and your team developed to interrogate miRNA expression. Do you still use these methods or have you moved on to commercially available tools?
Calin: We are involved in the continuous production of many more microarrrays for the study of non-coding RNAs. And I say “we” because this is team-work, involving Drs. Carlo Croce and Chang-gong Liu from Ohio State. This was the team that produced the first ever microarray for global profiling of microRNAs.
EpiGenie: There are a number of tools that are available today that weren’t even a few years ago. If you had unlimited funds, what technologies would you use to pursue the validation work of the many putative non-coding RNA sequences or continue on with discovery efforts?
Calin: I think the combination of “mindless” cloning and sequencing, paired with microarray expression across many tissues will continue to yield many interesting results. The issue arises though of how deal with some of the larger 50-100 KB ncRNAs. Obviously these are impossible to clone and you can’t sequence 100 KB. These genes can be very complicated, giving rise to many transcripts and splice variants. This is where it becomes more difficult than cloning and working with small RNAs
EpiGenie: You’ve spent most of your career here in the States working with Carlo Croce. How did you two first meet?
Calin: When I was twenty-five or twenty-six as a gastroenterologist I asked 120 scientists all over the world to teach me molecular genetics. I was doing cytogenetics work at the time in Romania which was the most that you could do then. A scientist from Ferrara asked me to come and study, so I spent two years there working with there with Massimo Negrini and Giuseppe Barbanti-Brodano and by chance Massimo was an Assistant Professor working with Carlo Croce, too. In this way, after finishing my job in Italy, I have had the great opportunity to move to Carlo Croce’s laboratory. This was really a fundamental move in my scientific career. EpiGenie: You’re a regular on the conference circuit. Do you have a favorite conference?
Calin: I prefer the Molecular Tri-Conference in San Francisco. I think it’s probably a mixture of the place, San Francisco being one of the most beautiful places in the United States, and the conference draws a lot of interesting people, but for me all the conferences are interesting. I travel to all kinds universities many of which are some of the smallest because I remember a time when I had no access to journals and books and I had to run all over Bucharest for hours and hours to find a paper or book chapter, so I like to talk directly to students about what we are doing and why. I feel like it’s my duty as a person coming from a place where it was really difficult to survive in science and to learn new things, to talk with students about what we are doing.
EpiGenie: Which journal to you prefer Science or Nature?