© Marv Watson

The Sherlock Holmes of Science

Back to overview

Michael Sofroniew is a master of observation and deduction. The 65-year old neuroscientist always asks questions and gets to the bottom of things. This talent led him to a discovery that revolutionized our understanding of neural regeneration after an injury. We interviewed a really likeable and intelligent man

Professor Sofroniew, where do you feel at home?
My father is from Bulgaria, my mother from Germany, but I was born in the States. I have lived in many countries, so my wife and I don’t have a real sense of nationality. We are happy wherever we are.

What does a typical work day look like for you?
I usually wake up at 6.30am and spend the morning by myself doing mostly mental work. I sit down at my desk with a coffee, read the latest findings that were published on the internet, and explore new ideas. As needed, I write articles or grants and at around noon I am ready to meet with the people from my laboratory. I want to know their latest findings and discuss the results with them. This usually goes on until the evening, when I force myself to stop after dinner, because I tend to forget the time and end up awake at four in the morning.

What motivates you to explore ideas and ask new questions?
You should ask my mother. She says that I was the most annoying four-year-old. You should also ask my wife, because she keeps on telling me: “Please, no more questions!” I don’t know why. My brain works that way. I’m always asking questions.

Also in your leisure time?
Yes. Mostly I puzzle with things and I read a lot, especially detective stories – the more complex, the better.

Detectives and scientists, do they have something in common?
Scientists, just as detectives, look for clues and go against the most obvious answers. They will not stop at anything until they are finally able to reveal the truth. Just like detectives do, I ask critical questions, although this sometimes gets me into trouble.

But it also resulted in great discoveries like last year with the glial scar.
Indeed. The glial scar forms after a spinal cord injury. For years, it was believed that this was harmful when it comes to neural regeneration. But our early studies revealed that blocking scar formation after injury resulted in even worse outcomes. And once we began looking specifically at regrowth, we became convinced that certain types of scar cells may actually be beneficial. Our results suggest that these scar cells may be a bridge – and not a barrier – towards developing better treatments for paralyzing spinal cord injuries. This work opens the door to an area of research that was inhibited by an incorrect dogma. 

Talking about treatments, do you believe in the “one shot cures it all” solution?
Our field is very much like the field of cancer research. We take one little step at a time, in contrast with – let’s say – the discovery of penicillin that could all of a sudden cure infections. A spinal cord injury is too complex for that! There is a multitude of cells and molecules interacting. This network is incredibly complex and maybe every injury is slightly different. Therefore, I believe that progress will be steady but gradual.

Michael Sofroniew with his colleague Joshua Burda
Michael Sofroniew with his colleague Joshua Burda  

How important is Wings for Life for that?
Private foundations in general and Wings for Life in particular are critical for progress in our field, because there is not enough money coming from government funding. Private foundations are also sometimes able to support ideas that are more controversial. My project is an example of that and as you see, the reward for daring to take such risk can be phenomenal.


Name: Professor Michael V. Sofroniew
Institute: Department of Neurobiology, David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA
Fields of expertise: Neuroscience, molecular biology, cell biology
Position at Wings for Life: Member of the Scientific Advisory Board
Number of publications: 226
Research experience: Ludwig-Maximilian University, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University of California

 (David Robinson )
© David Robinson

When axons are severed, they do not grow back automatically. Right after the initial trauma, the injury site is rapidly locked in by a strong cellular and chemical barrier called an astrocyte scar. These scars have a beneficial effect, since they decrease inflammation at the injury site and prevent the spread of tissue damage. However, scientists believed for a long time that they also obstructed axonal regeneration. In a series of experiments, Professor Sofroniew and his team were able to promote the regrowth of the axons even in the presence of the scar. They then prevented the scar formation, expecting even better regrowth, but to their surprise the regrowth was significantly reduced. These results challenge the accepted model of completely “bad” scar tissue, and show that astrocyte scar cells are somehow needed to support the regeneration of axons. The goal is now to better understand this mechanism to enhance the beneficial aspect of the scar tissue.

This work was supported by the Wings for Life foundation and was published in the highly renowned journal Nature (Astrocyte scar formation aids central nervous system axonal regeneration).