20 October 2017

The matrix man - retirement portrait of John Couchman


Professor and group leader John Couchman is not a man who craves attention. For more than 40 years, he has conducted experiments, published results and trained students, engaged in academic activities and received honors and awards in the field of matrix biology without ever causing much commotion about it. October 31, 2017 marks the date of his retirement and the formal end of an impressive scientific career.

- When I think about John, I think about a calm and balanced person, a wonderful cell biologist with excellent insights into cell adhesion and interaction. Words like Syndecans, Integrins, Collagen, Heparan Sulfate and British also come into my mind. Kristian Helin, Director of BRIC

John obtained his Ph.D in Cell Biology in 1977 and began his career as a postdoc in Unilever Research. In 1985 he was recruited to University of Alabama where he spent 15 years as first professor and then as Director of the Cell Adhesion/Matrix research Center. The US was also where he met his wife Hinke Multhaupt, with whom he has worked alongside ever since. Together they made the move to Imperial College London in 2001, where John was later appointed Head of Division of Biomedical Sciences. During the years in Britain, he engaged in collaboration with Professor Ulla Wewer - group leader at BRIC at the time, and in 2007, he landed the DNRF professorship from Danmarks Grundforskningsfond which led him to BRIC, where he has been a group leader for the past 10 years.

A pioneer in the field of matrix biology

Within academic circles, John Couchman is acknowledged as a pioneer in the field of matrix biology and has for the past 40 years provided key insight into cell adhesion, signalling and the interaction of cells with each other and with the extracellular matrix. His main focus has been the group of cell surface receptors known as syndecan proteoglycans. During the years, his lab has gradually uncovered the functions of these molecules - results which hold significant clinical implications, since syndecans are associated with various cancers, inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and a common form of heart failure.

- DNRF funding enabled us to intensively research syndecan signaling, which is critical to their roles in cell adhesion. In 2013 we had a significant breakthrough. We investigated adhesion characteristics of co- cultures of fibroblasts derived from wild type and mutant where the receptor had been genetically deleted. The results showed that communication by mechanotransduction was occurring, implying a role for ion channels, which ultimately proved to be the case. This has opened up new directions, not least in heart failure, where collaborators in Oslo now have data connecting syndecans and calcium channels with pressure overload hypertrophy, John Couchman, Group leader

Mechanotransduction in fibroblasts

With more than 200 published papers and reviews behind him, Couchman’s contribution to the field is monumental. In 2007, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and in 2014, The British Society of Matrix Biology, BSMB, awarded him the prestigious Fell-Muir Award for his outstanding contribution to the field of matrix biology.

- John is not only a brilliant extra cellular matrix researcher who constantly comes up with new ideas and novel connections between extracellular matrix molecules and intracellular signalling pathways, he is also extremely dedicated to research. On top of a 60h work week he still spends his weekends in the lab doing western blots and transfections, planning new experiments, writing articles, and discussing data with Hinke. Because he is thrilled by science! To my mind it is this combination of knowledge, excitement, and dedication, which makes him so successful and the undisputed leader in syndecan research, Cord Brakebusch, Group Leader at BRIC

For the last 2 years, John has been reducing his hours at BRIC. In 2016 he and Hinke relocated back to London, from where they now commute back and forth.

The future: travelling, bird watching … and science

Although he has enjoyed living in Copenhagen, John is not a city person. The outdoors is where he feels most comfortable, and where he and Hinke pursue their common interests; travelling and bird watching. Over the years, the two have travelled most parts of the world and they have several trips lined up for the future. Travelling also allows them to visit what John calls “their science children and grandchildren” – former students with whom they have kept in touch. John emphasizes that working with students has been one of the most fulfilling parts of his job, and one of the things he is going to miss the most.

Fortunately for his students as well as the rest of the scientific community, his formal retirement will not mean a complete goodbye. He has just signed another 2 year contract as Professor Emeritus at BRIC which will allow him to help his students and employees complete their on-going projects. Beside this, he still holds positions in various academic organizations and will be planning and attending scientific events during the next years. So the commute between London and Copenhagen will continue, and students and employees can still look forward to bumping in to him in the hallways of BRIC.