Introduction of new scientists in Tübingen – presenting: Dr. Ivana Nikić- Spiegel

By Stefanie Schuster


The Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN) is part of the Cluster of Excellence at the University of Tübingen and provides space for many renowned, systems-oriented neuroscientists. In this article, I interview Dr. Ivana Nikić-Spiegel, a new Junior Group leader at the CIN.
Dr. Ivana Niki-Spiegel is interested in the mechanisms underlying axonal injury in neuroinflammation. She is originally from Serbia, studied molecular biology and physiology at the University of Belgrade and followed up with a PhD at the LMU Munich. As a postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Nikić-Spiegel worked at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg for 5 years before she started her own research group in 2016 in Tübingen.

1. What is the exact focus of your work?

We are working on mechanisms underlying axonal injury in neuroinflammation. Within that field, we are especially interested in understanding the role of immune cells and its released compounds and how these damage axons in multiple sclerosis (MS).

2. Work in context: Why is it important to do research on your topic?

MS is the most common neuroinflammatory disease of the central nervous system. It mainly affects young adults and represents a major cause of non-traumatic neurological disability. Up to now, therapies cannot stop disease progression, but rather only alleviate symptoms. Although it is known that neurological deficits in patients are caused by axonal injury, this is not a target of any current drug. Understanding how axons are damaged is therefore fundamental to the development of new therapeutic strategies.

3. What unique techniques are established in your lab?

We are using a combination of modern microscopy and protein engineering tools. We work with super resolution microscopy, a special type of fluorescence microscopy capable of resolving biological structures with nanometer resolution. This was previously only possible with electron microscopy. Our super resolution microscope allows us to observe single molecules that may induce or affect axonal injury, but it requires sophisticated methods for protein labeling. We therefore exploit protein engineering tools, based on labeling genetic code expansions. The genetic code of host cells is expanded and altered in a way that it incorporates designed building blocks, so called non-canonical amino acids. These amino acids are very small, but almost identical to their naturally-occuring brothers, the canonical amino acids. Their special ‘feature’ is a chemical group that can be used for fluorescent labeling of proteins in living cells. In that way we get the smallest possible labeling tag which is crucial for super-resolution microscopy.

Figure 1 (left) and 2 (right): Dual-color labeling of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) tissue (the mouse model of MS). Neurons are labelled in green, with axons in the white matter and their bodies in the grey matter. Nuclei of immune cells in inflammatory EAE lesions are shown in magenta. Figure 1 (left) is a cross-section, figure 2 (right) is a magnified longitudinal section.

4. Why did you decide to come to Tübingen?

The CIN offered me to opportunity to set up my own laboratory. Keeping in mind Tübingen’s scientific reputation, especially in the neuroscience field, it was an excellent opportunity for me.  Furthermore, it is important to me that good students are attracted to the city as well such as Tübingen’s Neuroscience Graduate Training Centre. I also liked Tübingen as a city upon visiting and being home to the annual chocolate festival of course made Tübingen even more attractive!

5. Future perspective: What are your ideals for the future and what do you hope to achieve in Tübingen?

In Tübingen, I can finally tackle some of the open questions from my PhD work. I made the observation that a small population of axons can spontaneously recover, while others degenerate. I am happy that I can approach this differential axon recovery from a molecular perspective and I hope to further solve the puzzle of axonal de-/ and regeneration with insights from live super-resolution imaging.

Stefanie Schuster is a PhD candidate in the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research in the Clinical Neurogenetics lab of Prof. Dr. Ludger Schöls in Tübingen, Germany.