20 November 2023

Antonios Pantazis has recently been awarded the prestigious Swedish Fernström Prize for his work on ion channels. His lab aims to unravel the molecular mechanisms of ion channels and their role in various diseases, such as epilepsy, arrhythmias, and muscle dystrophies.

Researcher Antonios Pantazis sits in his office and shows his 3D model of ion channels in different colors.
Antonios Pantazis explains that his research focuses on ion channel proteins, which he says are responsible for “the spark of life”. John Karlsson

Antonios Pantazis was chosen by the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Linköping University for the 2023 Swedish Fernström Prize, which recognises young and promising researchers in Sweden.

“It feels fantastic and I’m very honoured. The ceremony in Lund was magnificent and it feels great to live and work in a country that appreciates science this much. It really gives me optimism for the future”.

We have in our research tool set some approaches that are unique in Sweden

He was awarded the prize for his successful research on ion channel biophysics and cellular excitability in health and disease. Using advanced experimental techniques and computational methods, he maps the function of ion channels in relation to their complex structure. 

“We have in our research tool set some approaches that are unique in Sweden and show great promise for great findings ahead,” he says.

"The spark of life"

His research focuses on ion channel proteins, which he says are responsible for “the spark of life”. He says that ion channels are involved in many aspects of our physiology and pathology, from how our body uses electrical signals at the molecular level, to how mutations in ion channels can cause diseases of electrical signalling, such as epilepsy, arrhythmias, and muscle dystrophies.

He also says that ion channels are very promising pharmacological targets, as many drugs can be designed to act on them and solve a lot of health problems. However, in many cases, ion channels are underused as drug targets, because the knowledge and the tools to manipulate them effectively, are not there yet.

“We know we should target these proteins, but we don’t yet have the drugs to do that selectively and safely,” he says.

Resolving their molecular movements

Antonios Pantazis in his office with his 3D model of ion channels in front of him.Antonios Pantazis in his office in Linköping with a 3D model representing an ion channel. Photo credit John Karlsson Pantazis' biggest fascination about ion channels is their "beauty".

He compares their complex structure to a medieval castle, with towering spires, imposing turrets and gates. He says that structural biology has given us a glimpse of this beauty, but it is still static and incomplete. His approach is to resolve the different conformations, or shapes, that ion channels adopt in response to various stimuli, such as electrical signals or biochemical signals. This will help us understand how ion channels work and how they are affected by mutations that cause disease.

“Our aim is to resolve the different conformations, how these molecular machines can change their shape,” he says.

What also attracts him to ion channels is that studying them combines a lot of different scientific disciplines.

"Studying them involves several laws of physics, but also chemistry and molecular biology, and even some math, if one likes this sort of thing. They tick a lot of intellectual boxes,” he says.

Exciting projects on the horizon

Exciting projects are underway for the lab, which he hopes will lead to more discoveries. One project is about the presynaptic calcium channels, which are found at the terminals of neurons and control the communication between nerve cells. These channels have a molecular memory, which means that they can remember if they were previously stimulated and change their behaviour accordingly.

“This molecule that can remember, contributes to learning and memory in the brain,” he says.

A group is watching a big screen in an office.Serena Pozzi, PhD student (left) and Kaiqian Wang, postdoc (center) are both part of the Pantazis Laboratory of Cellular Excitability - PaLaCE. Here they watch a short clip together with Antonios on how the voltage-clamp fluorometry technique “illuminates” a voltage-gated calcium channel complex. Photo credit John Karlsson Another project that he is very excited about is a collaboration with cardiologists from Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg. Serena Pozzi, PhD student in the Pantazis Laboratory, will study five Swedish families who suffer from a very specific type of cardiac arrhythmia. They all have a mutation in the cardiac sodium channel, which is responsible for amplifying electrical signals that trigger contraction of the heart. However, the type of arrhythmia they have is not consistent with the channel that is affected, and the mutation is very subtle, involving only one carbon atom.

“In a molecule of over 2000 amino acids, missing one carbon atom is causing members of five families to have serious cardiac arrhythmias, sometimes fatal. At the same time, the underlying mechanism of this arrhythmia is not clear,” he says.

By using stem cells they can create cardiac cells with the same mutation as the patients, and then study them to see what is wrong with them and how the mutant channel produces that type of arrhythmia.

Follow your science and passion

Pantazis says that science "gave him wings", as he travelled to different countries and institutions to pursue his research. He did a postdoc at University College London, and then moved to California, where he worked at UCLA and had his first early faculty position. He then came to Linköping in 2018, as part of the Wallenberg Centre of Molecular Medicine (WCMM).

Antonios Pantazis stands in the corridor at Campus US.Antonios Pantazis. Photo credit John Karlsson

He says that he chose Linköping because of its strong research reputation in the ion channel field, with researchers such as Fredrik Elinder and Sara Liin.

“When it was time to move to Sweden, Linköping was a no-brainer. Everyone has been super supportive. I really like how our department is supporting us, also financially with co-funding which is terrific. We have a lot of freedom to pursue our research projects”.

“Overall it is great to be in this environment and, in combination with the appreciation of science from the Swedish society, it is absolutely wonderful”.

I would encourage young scientists to open their wings and see where science takes them

There are many things that Antonios loves about his work as a researcher. One of them is the intellectual mysteries and the satisfaction of solving them.

“The satisfaction of seeing something for the first time. When you do an experiment on something new and when it works you see a signal on the computer screen that nobody in the universe has seen before! That is a unique feeling. For a few hours, you hold a piece of knowledge that nobody else knows about”.

Another part of his job that he loves is the possibility to travel the world, experience different cultures and make friends along the way.

“I grew up in Greece, but I spent eight years in Britain, and I made lifelong friends there. Then I spent ten years in California, and I made lifelong friends there. Now I have been in Sweden for the last five years and I look forward to staying here for much longer”.

To be a scientist gives you the ability to go basically anywhere you want in the world and Antonios urges others to do so.

“The possibility that you can go for a short-term contract somewhere abroad and follow your science and your passion, but also travel and see how different parts of the world look like. I think that is extremely valuable. That is something else that I really like about my job. I would encourage young scientists to open their wings and see where science takes them”.

 

Facts: Antonios Pantazis

Antonios Pantazis.Antonios Pantazis. Photo credit Magnus Johansson Age: 41
Lives: Norrköping
Family: Wife and a baby
Listens to: During my commute, I mainly listen to scientific or historical podcasts. I really like "The Night Science Podcast". It's about how one can be creative as a scientist, and that's something I'm really interested in.
Favourite spot in Sweden: My wife’s family have a house on the west coast, Bohuslän, and that's my absolute favourite spot. Coming from Greece, I have an affinity for the sea and just being able to hear the sea and smell it, is fantastic.
Motto: "Along with Athena, also move your hand." It's from a brilliant short fable by Aesop. Look it up! My rather liberal interpretation is "don't rely on chance, actively work to succeed".

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