In conversation with...Michael Axelsson

01 November 2017 - By: SEB

In conversation with...Michael Axelsson

Michael Axelsson

Michael Axelsson, Professor at the University of Gothenburg and our local organiser and host for the recent Annual Meeting in Gothenburg talks to the SEB.

SEB: You are long standing member of SEB. What attracted you to become and remain a member of SEB all these years?

MA: I have been a member probably since 1985. Prof. Stefan Nilsson was my supervisor and a member of SEB and he introduced me to the SEB conferences. When I started to attend the yearly SEB meetings I soon found out that, as a young PhD student, they gave me a platform to present my research, to meet the people that wrote all the papers that I read and to establish a network. Since then the Society expanded the topics and number of meetings. I especially like the Society’s interest in teaching and the 3R framework for more humane animal research, raising questions which are both very important and interconnected to the science presented. I also like the support for young scientists and that the Society is not only for us old guys.

SEB: How would you describe your research1 focus and interests?

MA: I have always been interested in technique and biology and have been able to combine these interests in my research. I started my career looking at cardiovascular regulation in an American salamander and then in the Atlantic cod where the focus was on the autonomic control of the heart and vascular system. As a side project I also looked at the cardiovascular system in crocodiles, not so much on the regulation in the beginning, more on the haemodynamic, trying to figure what use they have for the left aortic arch. My main line of research today is on fish cardiovascular physiology, with a focus on regional blood flow regulation, but I take any opportunity to look at other animal species and groups – anything that has a cardiovascular system.

SEB: How do you approach your science and research?

MA: I am not very good at keeping a red line in my research and have worked with a number of different people and groups on projects from spider cardiac output measurements to cardiovascular effects during rabbit ovulation. My main work is on different fish species, a very fascinating and diverse group of animals, and this line of work has taken me to both poles and to the tropics. I like the technical and surgical challenges and want to expand into areas that have not yet been possible due to technical limitations and to develop or improve surgical procedures.

SEB: How has your research focus changed over your career?

MA: In my early career the focus was on the autonomic control of the cardiovascular system, but my main focus now is more on regional blood flow and the effects of various stimuli, both internal and external. I have tried to contribute to the understanding of the gastrointestinal blood flow in relation to stress, feeding, exercise and environmental temperature. I have also worked with coronary blood flow in fish: some fish do have coronary arteries but some don´t and, in the group that do, the dependency of the supply of oxygenated blood to the cardiac muscle varies from total (as in mammals) to little or none. I have always been interested in surgical techniques and have been depending on microsurgery for my own research. I have taken several courses in surgery and microsurgery myself and realised that there was a demand for proficiency training for preclinical personnel. In 2010 I ran the first microsurgery course in Gothenburg and, in 2013, I initiated the microsurgery training facility here. When we started the courses we were contacted by the hand and plastic surgeons at the local hospital who wanted to take advantage of the microsurgery laboratory that we set up, to run courses for clinically active surgeons that wanted to specialise in microsurgery. Since 2013 we have been running two courses for pre-clinical personnel and two courses for clinically active surgeons per year. I also work as an instructor at the microsurgical course arranged by the Karolinska Institute2. We are also starting to do some research projects within the area of microsurgery, with implications for both preclinical and clinical microsurgery. This new line of research (for me) is very interesting and at the same time challenging.

SEB: You are well known for developing new surgery techniques and instrumentation. Can you tell us a bit about the techniques and instrumentation that you developed?

MA: Since my research always focused on integrative physiology using whole animal models, I have always been dependent on surgery to instrument the animals for the measurements. To get good results it is important that the anaesthesia and surgery is done according to best practise, forcing me to develop new protocols and techniques. For example, following laboratory based projects where we slowly dissected haemodynamics and regulation in crocodiles, it became clear that it would not be possible to solve the basic question about the function of the left aorta in the normal daily life of a crocodile. We needed a new type of biotelemetric system to measure blood flow and pressure at the same time, a development that took 10 years and was in itself an interesting process. Lately I have initiated the development of a system for hand and finger motion analyses that will allow us to score participants in microsurgery courses in a more objective way. We are at the stage when we will test the system during one of the courses for the first time: it will be very exciting to see the results and find out what we need to take back to the drawing board – hopefully not another 10 year project.

SEB: What new discoveries have you made with the novel equipment that you have helped to design?

MA: We have used the biotelemetric system in studies of fish, giraffes and crocodiles and it has also been used in mammalian studies by other groups. It is evident in all animal groups that stress levels are lower in animals that can move around freely compared to hard-wired animals. This is not very surprising in itself but shows that we need to be very careful when we interpret data from laboratory-based studies, especially in wild animals. We can also combine behaviour studies with measurements of physiological variables that are hard or impossible when the animals are hard-wired to the recording equipment and you have to keep them separated from each other and the individual cannot move and express a normal behaviour due to the tethering. Biotelemetry opens up new possibilities and will most likely force us to re-evaluate old results.

SEB: You have worked on a variety of animals in some exotic locations (e.g. Africa, Australia and Antarctica) – why these locations and what animals do you find particularly fascinating?

MA: It is not the locations as such, even though I cannot deny that the places that my work takes me to in many cases are attractive in their own, but the accessibility of animals living in these regions and their cardiovascular system that is the focus. How does the heart and cardiovascular system function at -1.9C, what purpose does the left aorta in crocodiles have, how is the shunt that guides the blood around the cardiovascular system in lungfish controlled etc. Comparative physiologists have the advantage that we can, and should, as far as possible, study the animals that we are interested in in their normal environment. The positive side effect is that we can travel to some very interesting places.

SEB: You appear to have an interest in conservation physiology – what value can physiology and experimental biology have in conservation?

MA: In 1981, when I started my biology studies in Gothenburg, the concept of conservation physiology had not yet been defined: it was introduced in 2013 by Steve Cooke and a couple of other scientists interested in conservation biology. Since I have been interested in how both internal and external stimuli affect the cardiovascular system, some of my research fits into the concept of conservation physiology. In order to predict how a changing world will affect different species of animals from the individual to the population level it is important to understand the physiology of the whole organism, but we have to be careful in how we do this, we cannot simulate what will happen in 100 years in a few weeks in the laboratory. We need carefully designed studies in order to be able to predict the future.

SEB: This year you have been our local organiser and host for the SEB Annual Meeting in Gothenburg and have made us feel really welcomed in this beautiful part of Sweden! How did you find the experience of co-organising our main event of the year?

MA: I was nervous, not for the organisation since I know that the SEB office is very good at organising these meetings and I fully trusted the organisation of the Swedish Exhibition & Congress Center Group, SECC, in Gothenburg, but none of us have control of the weather. Gothenburg can be very beautiful when the sun is shining but it can also be cold and miserable – I of course hoped for sun and we were lucky. With the professional SEB office and the Swedish Exhibition & Congress Center I did not have that much to do and could just enjoy the fact that for the first time I could commute by bike to the conference. I would encourage people to invite the SEB to their city, not that much work but a lot of fun!

1. Research and Publications: http://bioenv.gu.se/personal/Axelsson_Michael

2. Microsurgery Courses: http://mikrokirurgi.se/

Category: Animal Biology
Share