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Biophysicist in Profile

Hugues Abriel

Hugues Abriel

April 2019 // 3808

Hugues Abriel grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father worked for a state-owned energy company and his mother was a primary school teacher.  “Both my parents were very politically and socially involved in issues related to immigration, rights for employees, and other social injustices, he recalls.”   As a teenager, he spent summers in the Swiss mountains helping farmers take care of cows, where his career dreams vacillated between farming and becoming a veterinarian. 

At age 18, Abriel went to Zurich to study biology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.  “I learned recently there is a name for what I am—a “firstgen” or first generation student,” said Abriel.  Like many young people, he wanted to make the world a better place.  “I had the idea that I could help find a cure for drug addiction, which was already a very serious problem for students of my generation,” he said.  He went to college with the hope that he “could understand how small molecules (such as drugs) change your perceptions and mind.” 

Abriel went on to earn a master’s degree in pharmacology and then studied human medicine at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, with the goal of becoming a psychiatrist.  “In my studies I discovered the different types of ‘targets’ of all psychotropic drugs and found that ion channels were extremely fascinating being at the core of so many cellular functions.” He received his MD degree in 1994 but wasn’t finished yet!  In 1995, he obtained a MD-PhD degree in physiology.  

As a postdoc at the University of Lausanne, he worked with a group under Jean-Daniel Horisberger and Olivier Staub on elucidating the role of mutations in the epithelial sodium channel (ENaC) leading to a hereditary form of arterial hypertension (Liddle’s syndrome).   Later he joined Robert Kass at Columbia University in New York, to study mutations altering the function of cardiac ion channels found in patients with severe types of cardiac arrhythmias leading to sudden cardiac death. 

Following his postdoc work, Abriel accepted a position as assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology, University of Lausanne, and later became a full professor at the University of Bern, where he was also director of the Department of Clinical Research at the Bern University Hospital.  Currently he is professor of molecular medicine at the University of Bern’s Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, as well as director of a research network funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. His current work focuses on two types of cardiac ion channels (Nav1.5 and TRPM4) that have been described to be mutated in patients with cardiac electrical alterations.  “The field of ‘channelopathies’ allows me to link dysfunctions that can be recorded at the single-molecule level to human disease,” explains Abriel.  “This work links the molecules to the bed of the patient.  It is a huge privilege to be trained both with biophysical tools and as an MD, which allows me to be able to address the questions at both ends of the science continuum.”

When Abriel first visited to the Democratic Republic of Congo to give a lecture, he met Gerrye Mubungu who was interested in a collaboration.  They have worked on two studies and in 2015, Abriel obtained funding for Mubungu and a colleague to complete a month of training at the University of Bern and be introduced to researchers across Switzerland.  Mubungu says of Abriel, “He is a hard worker, a very good scientist, and an inspirational mentor.  Most importantly, he really likes what he does.” Indeed, Abriel says that the most rewarding aspect of his work is to “be a part of a community of peers who are sharing the same values and interests, and being able to transmit these values to a younger generation of scientists.”

Abriel is currently planning on taking a sabbatical leave to visit a few French-speaking African universities. He then plans to return to his lab, possibly to develop some single-channel recording techniques.  He professes that the biggest challenge in his career now is “how to pursue my fascination for experimental research without being dragged away with all my science management activities.”

When not working on science, Abriel spends time with his partner and two children and likes to retreat to the Swiss mountains to hike and ski.  
His advice for young investigators:  “Find your ‘pet’ topic and do not be afraid of the physics part in biophysics.  Biology is wonderful and even more so if you can use the laws of physics to study it!”