Murcia University honours Dr. Leonard Zon
Jorge Galindo-Villegas, Murcia University, Spain
On April 21st, 2015, Dr. Len Zon, Director of the Stem Cell Program at Children’s Hospital Boston at Harvard Medical School (USA), was made Doctor Honoris Causa by Murcia University, Spain. The academic ceremony was presided over by the Honorable Rector Magnificus José Orihuela Calatayud and several distinguished members of the University community. The ceremony took place in the auditorium “Hermenegildo Lumeras de Castro” located beneath the Faculty of Chemistry which faces the Faculty of Biology, on the Espinardo campus. The ceremony, which was broadcast live, included the performance of different pieces by the chamber orchestra of Murcia University. Len’s promoter was Dr. Victoriano Mulero, Professor of the Department of Cell Biology and Histology, who gave the Laudatio speech.
The ceremony began with the entrance of the academic authorities to the sound of Andante, which was followed by the opening speech given by the Rector Orihuela Calatayud. The General Secretary of the University, Santiago M. Alvarez Carreño proceeded to read out the agreement made by the Board of Governors to the proposal made by the Department of Cell Biology and Histology, Faculty of Biology, to confer the Honoris Causa Degree on Dr. Zon. This agreement recognizes Len’s brilliant teaching, outstanding research track record and his renown as a leading pediatrician. He is one of the world leading figures in the field of stem cells transplantation, a researcher specialized in blood diseases and, quite importantly, founder of a new avenue of hematological research and drug screening to cure cancers, among many other diseases, using the zebrafish as a vertebrate animal model. After the agreement was pronounced, the Rector kindly asked for the presence of the Laureate. Len entered accompanied by his promoter Dr. Mulero and the Dean of the Faculty of Biology, Dr. Jose Meseguer, to the tune of Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major (RV537). After everyone took their seat, Professor Mulero gave his Laudatio of Len in which he offered an extensive overview of his outstanding and brilliant academic career. Then, the Rector awarded Len with a Doctor Honoris Causa, thus becoming a member of the University’s Senate of Doctors. The last part of the act included the new Doctor’s speech of acceptance, following the rendering.
Len acknowledged the award, by immediately telling a funny phrase which made everyone in the audience lose the solemnity of the act with a big laugh: “I have had the opportunity of being twice in each of the three most important cities in Spain, twice in Madrid, twice in Barcelona and of course, twice in Murcia” (Murcia is a quite small town without touristic recognition). He continued by speaking a bit about his daily work. He presented himself as a hematologist by training, a medical doctor who takes care of children presenting blood diseases or cancer, and a researcher keen to learn and decipher the biology of stem cells to produce effective drugs to treat mortal human diseases.
In his speech, he stressed the several advantages displayed by the zebrafish as a vertebrate animal model. He then introduced his particular and interesting research focus by using a graphical video which he produced. The video showed a transgenic zebrafish embryo expressing fluorescence in the blood cells and he described how it was used to dissect the formation of these important cells in vertebrates. The impressive video came to a climax when he introduced how blood stem cells go into the circulation and eventually, to the intermediate cell mass at the tail where the blood cells are formed, following the process known as homing, which is accomplished through the interaction with endothelial and stromal cells in the vascular hematopoietic niche. After dividing again, they then go back into circulation and eventually will colonize the kidney. Some will go further to the thymus, allowing the animal to have blood for its entire lifetime. Len highlighted the functional importance of this process, where he transplanted stem blood cells allowing sick people to live an entire life-time. Proud of his findings he mentioned “I’ve done this procedure in a broad number of patients. Although we know how to make bone marrow transplantation, we don’t really understand how it works”.
To end his acceptance speech, Len mentioned that now his laboratory is interested in knowing more about the mechanism and pathways, using the zebrafish as a feasible live vertebrate model. So far, using thousands of small zebrafish embryos and a high-throughput chemical genetic screening, he has identified prostaglandins as stimulators of blood stem cell production both during embryogenesis and in adulthood. His studies may support a deeper comprehension of how human blood stem cells home to the marrow, engraft and self-renew, and suggest new therapeutic approaches for hematological disorders.