Professor Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam (1990) - Photo: © Ateljé Uggla, Stockholm

Professor Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam (1990)

Professor Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, who was a member of Merton’s MCR in the 1990s, has been much in the news recently, especially in the Swedish media. Gunilla is a professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. She is in the Academy’s Covid-19 expert group, in which capacity she has been interviewed frequently on matters relating to the pandemic.

Gunilla’s research is in the field of immunology and immunogenetics. Her research group is investigating how antigen-specific B cell responses develop in response to vaccination, infection and in autoimmune diseases. A central question is how genetic variation in human immune receptor genes shapes such responses. To address this, the group uses deep immune repertoire sequencing and computational tools to identify genetic variation in populations. This has revealed a great degree of allelic diversity in B and T cell receptors in both humans and non-human primates. The results obtained from studies can help explain differences in disease susceptibilities between humans and elucidate evolutionary aspects of our immune system.

Gunilla studied for her first degree at Uppsala University in Sweden, and then came to Merton in 1990 to do a DPhil in Biomedical Sciences. While at Oxford, she was a keen runner, being an active member of the University’s Cross-Country Club and the University Athletic Club; in her final year, she was captain of the University Women's athletics team. She was also fully involved in the life of the Merton MCR.

After her DPhil, Gunilla went to the United States to continue her research as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Then followed three years in the biotech sector, before she returned to Sweden in 2001 to join the Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm. KI is a medical university, and Sweden’s largest centre of medical academic research. She became an Associate Professor there in 2004 and a tenured professor in 2012.

In 2016, Gunilla was elected to the Nobel Assembly at KI and, since 2019, she has been a member of the Committee for the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, presently as the Deputy Chair of the Committee. She was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2020.

In ‘normal times’, Gunilla likes to come back to visit Merton. The fact that she enjoyed her time at the College is shown by the many friends she made at Oxford, with whom she keeps in touch, though they are now spread around the world. In 2019, she spent the summer with her family in Cambridge as a visiting Fellow at Clare Hall where she is now a life member.

Merton & Me

Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a student, what was your first impression?

I immediately felt that Merton connected the past to the present in a very tangible way and that it was a unique experience to be a part of. I felt very lucky.

Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?

There are many: being shown around (with a glass of sherry in hand) on matriculation day learning about the College’s history, the frequent stops by the Porters’ Lodge to chat, the time spent in the College Gardens, interesting discussions in the MCR and visits to the old upstairs library.

Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.

My family moved from Uppsala, Sweden to Geneva, Switzerland when I was 14 years old, and I was thrown into an international world that I have enjoyed ever since. There, I also discovered the beauty of the Alps, a place to which I always long to return.

What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?

I have always found it natural to work hard, in periods almost with blinders on. This has served me well, but also means that I have missed occasions to spend time with interesting people around me, of which Merton was full. I would advise my younger version to prioritise and treasure such moments more often.

Describe Merton in three words.

History, harmony, excitement.

An interview with Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam

Your first degree was in Biochemistry at Uppsala in Sweden. What first got you interested in the subject?

I wanted to do Natural Sciences because I was interested in the function of things. I wanted to have a good foundation as a scientist, though I didn’t know at that point what direction it would take. The work I do now involves the understanding of proteins and protein complexes, so my biochemistry degree was very good basic training.

What made you decide to come to Oxford to do your DPhil?

I was born in Uppsala and went to university there – it’s the oldest university in Sweden, and Uppsala is a nice place. But because I grew up and studied there, I wanted to go somewhere else for the next stage. As part of my undergraduate degree, I had to do a separate project for a term, and so I started writing letters to the biochemistry departments of different universities to see where I could go. The reply I got from Professor Dwek in Oxford was very positive and very welcoming, so that’s why I came.

As soon as I arrived, I felt at home. I was assigned to the biochemistry lab where Fran Platt was doing her research. [Frances Platt is now a Supernumerary Fellow at Merton and Head of the Department of Pharmacology.] She was my first mentor, which made a really big difference. She is an excellent scientist, knowledgeable and fun, and we had a great interaction. So when I was invited to come back and do my DPhil there, after I had completed my degree at Uppsala, it was an easy decision to make.

So that’s how I came to Oxford to do my DPhil, because of that wonderful term here as part of my undergraduate degree; and I chose Merton because of how beautiful it was, and because I was fascinated by its history.

What do you remember of your time at Merton?

Merton was a perfect complementary world to the Department of Biochemistry. I really liked my research – I worked hard, often into the evenings. But in between times there was always the option of going into College to meet people working on other topics, which was inspiring.

The lab was a very exciting environment, but College – well, that was just a fairytale world.

You then went to Harvard Medical School to work as a postdoc, after which you left academia briefly, to work for three years in the biotech sector. Why did you decide to come back to academic research?

There was a biotech boom at the time – so much happening. I was in two minds about what to do, but I had been away from home for so many years, and something called me back to Europe – a biotech job in Copenhagen. Not Sweden, of course, but nearer to home than I had been for almost ten years.

But I missed the academic world, and came to the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in 2001. And I’ve been here for 20 years now. I like the dynamics of an international university, and working with people who really love what they do.

Moving to the present, your research group’s main interest is in immunogenetics, investigating how our immune system can generate such a great diversity of antibodies and how such responses differ between individuals. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

A key function of the immune system is to produce antibodies that recognise invading pathogens, such as viruses, and neutralise them. Hundreds of different types of antibodies are generated in response to a typical infection or vaccination, some of which are effective; some are not so effective.

To fully understand the diversity of the response, we turned our attention to the genes that encode antibodies and B cell receptors. These genes are highly polymorphic, more so than most other parts of our genome, as are the genes that encode T cell receptors.

We found this fascinating, and over the past years we have developed methodologies that allow definition of this diversity in understudied population groups, which has led to the identification of many new gene variants. Ultimately, this research will help our understanding of why some people handle infections more effectively or develop certain types of immune-mediated diseases.

Over the years, we have analysed samples from vaccine trials or cohorts of people infected by viruses, now including SARS-CoV-2, but also people with autoimmune conditions. Biobanks have been building up those samples for many years, which we can tap into.

Our first step is to characterise the diversity to generate databases of gene variants with improved global coverage. There is great genetic diversity in sub-Saharan Africans, but also in other population groups. A next step is to understand if there are genetic signatures that explain clinical outcomes, for example predispositions to develop autoimmune disease or respond poorly to certain vaccines.

You have been in the Swedish media a great deal recently, in your role as a member of the Covid-19 expert group for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. How has that experience been?

Yes, I have been interviewed quite a lot. Communication is part of the job – it’s expected of you. When the pandemic started, suddenly everyone was interested in antibodies and immunity in general, so there were a lot of questions from the public, such as: ‘How much more at risk are you if you have an underlying disease?’ and ‘How long does immunity last?'

It takes time to interact with journalists and can easily get too much, but it has forced me to be able to answer such questions in a way that people can understand.

You are a member of the Committee for the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology – selecting the next Nobel Prize Laureates in this category. What does this involve?

Nominations for the Nobel Prize happen early in the year, and academics around the world are invited to submit them. We receive hundreds of nominations every year so we work intensely in the spring to create a shortlist, meeting every month, with a lot of work between our meetings.

The committee members are selected from the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet, on a rotating basis. Each is on the committee for a term of six years, max. I’m the Deputy Chair this year and next.

It’s a real privilege to be involved. It’s a lot of work, but you learn a great deal about many different research topics.

Is there any one thing in your career of which you are most proud?

Building up the lab we have now – it’s a stable, productive group, and I think we’re doing research that will have long-term impacts.

But it’s all step by step. You change direction here and there – that’s what makes research so fun. It’s up to you to make the most of it. I feel I am in the most productive time of my life. I feel very lucky to have been able to work on many different research ideas.

And is there any one person who has been most influential on your career?

That would be Fran Platt. She gave me the confidence and training to pursue my ideals. When I was offered the opportunity to do a DPhil, she said that of course I would be able to do it.

She was a big part of the start of my career. I’m now in a good position, doing research that I love, with a great group, funding, and working hard.

I couldn’t ask for more.

While at Merton, you were heavily involved in sport. Was it here that you took up your cross-country running and athletics?

Yes, it all started at Merton. I was running, and came across some people who said I should take it up for the College. I ended up in the University team and represented the University in six varsity matches: three for cross-country running and three for athletics. So yes, I’m a Blue – and I have my Oxford Blue sweater in a drawer, though no one here knows what it is!

I was running until a few years ago until a knee said no; but I still like hiking and being outdoors.

I returned for an alumni event about 20 years after leaving, and when I walked into the College Bar the barman said: "You were that runner!" That’s how wonderful and friendly Merton is.