Q&A with Björn Dahlbäck: 2023 recipient of the Robert P. Grant Medal
The International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH) has awarded the Robert P. Grant Medal, the highest honor of the Society, to Björn Dahlbäck in recognition of his outstanding accomplishments in the field of thrombosis and hemostasis. The award honors research achievements, organizational activities, support of research activities, facilitation of institutional cooperation and communication, unusual teaching or educational initiatives and/or the development of concepts that result in a clearer understanding of research data.
Dahlbäck serves as Professor Emeritus at Lund University in Sweden. Among his many academic achievements, he determined that activated protein C (APC) resistance is the most common inherited risk factor for venous thrombosis. His research showed that APC resistance is caused by a harmful mutation in the F5 gene corresponding to the protein Factor V, now called Factor V Leiden, which is now widely discussed and tested throughout the world.
Dahlbäck sat down with the ISTH team to discuss the Robert P. Grant Medal recognition, what the award means to him and his proudest achievements. Plus, he shared some of his favorite memories from his first ISTH Congress more than 40 years ago.
What does the ISTH Robert P. Grant Medal recognition mean to you?
It is a great feeling to realize that my colleagues and peers appreciate the work I have done over my career. Of course, as with anyone, there are times I struggled. It is humbling and honoring to have my colleagues and many of the great scientists that I look up to and admire choose me for this award.
You received your medical degree in 1974 from Lund University in Sweden. Why did you decide to focus on thrombosis and hemostasis?
As with many things in life, it was serendipity and coincidence. After I received my medical degree, I started working in the department of medicine in nephrology. I hesitated to continue in that field. One day, by chance, I met one of the senior people in the clinical chemistry laboratory and we discussed the possibility of me joining the lab. I was interested in learning more about research work, so I joined the lab with the plan to go back to the clinic after a few years.
However, as fate would have it, I enjoyed the research work so much that I never went back to the clinic again. My mentor was Johan Stenflo, a pioneer in blood coagulation research. He had just discovered Protein C—at the time, nothing was known about this protein. It turned out to be one of the most important anticoagulant proteins that regulate blood coagulation. We now know that if a person has protein C deficiency, the person also has an increased risk for thrombosis. Looking back, I think it was by chance and pure coincidence that I started working in the lab. I was very lucky to have Stenflo as my mentor.
How has your involvement with the ISTH evolved over the years?
I started working in the research lab in Sweden in 1977. I attended my first ISTH Congress in London in 1979 to present my research results. It was an exciting time, and I remember the ISTH 1979 Congress very positively. It was not too different from how the Congress is today, although it was smaller—perhaps 3,000 people.
It was my first trip to London. I remember listening to all the lectures and preparing for my presentation. Back then, we had to physically bring our slides and photographs (no PowerPoint!), and we carried around a big heavy bag with the Congress book of abstracts. I also remember meeting with scientists whose published work I had read about in journals. It was incredible to meet them in person and make connections, which led to some of the best research collaborations.
Later in my career, I was invited to take on a leadership role at the ISTH. I joined the Scientific and Standardization Committee (SSC) Subcommittee on Anticoagulant Proteins and later served as Chairman of an SSC subcommittee. Later on, I have had the privilege of serving on the ISTH Council in a few different roles, e.g., as Treasurer.
What is your proudest research achievement?
Often, we do research because we are simply curious, but sometimes it is clear that the research will actually be very important and impactful. I realized the importance of my work when I discovered APC resistance (mostly now known as Factor V Leiden), which is the most common risk factor for venous thrombosis. It is now tested in every coagulation lab in the world. For me, that is very gratifying.
What is on the horizon for you, and what do you hope to see in the future in the field of thrombosis and hemostasis?
In Sweden, we have mandatory retirement at a certain age, so I have been officially retired for several years. However, I have been hanging on for a few years working to continue to fund my research lab. However, it is time for me to move to the next stage of life, so I am closing my research lab at the end of this year.
I would like to continue to see a prioritization on having a mixture of basic and clinical research in the field. I think the ISTH has done a good job balancing basic and clinical science, and I think it is important for that to continue in the future.