Fiona Watt, FRS is a British scientist who is internationally known for detailing the mechanisms that control epidermal stem cell renewal, differentiation, and tissue aggregation. She is also known for discovering how each of those processes' regulations are removed in diseased cells. She became the first woman president of the International Society of Stem Cell Research(ISSCR) in 2008, and has advocated on behalf of women in science. She became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, and she has held the position of Deputy Director at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research. She received her Doctorate of Philosophy (DPhil) degree in 1979 from the University of Oxford, and as of 2013, she became involved with the Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Initiative which began with a project known as HipSci. HipSci is a collaboration of many researchers at Wellcome Trust that are generating and characterizing a large collection of human induced pluripotent stem cells to discover how genomic variation affects cellular phenotype and to identify new mechanisms of disease.
Fiona Watt knew she wanted to be a scientist from a very young age. She even had her own lab coat in which she pretended she was a chemist, playing with her chemistry set. She is so passionate about her career that she was quoted saying, "I think that being a scientist is in a sense hardwired, and there are people who just couldn't conceive of being anything else."
Fiona Watt obtained her Bachelor of Art in Natural Sciences in 1976, and her Masters degree in 1979, both from Cambridge University, U.K, where she was the only female graduate student in her department. She also obtained her Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford in 1979, after spending two weeks in Germany discovering whether or not tumor cells contained microtubules, naming her thesis "Microtubule-organizing centers in cells in culture and in hybrids derived from them." Watt, then, completed a two-year postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, with Dr. Howard Green. Upon returning to the UK, she founded her first lab at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London where she became Head of the Molecular Cell Biology Laboratory, and in 1987, relocated to the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute where, until 2006, she served as Head of the Keratinocyte Laboratory. Currently, Watt is the Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Cambridge, Deputy Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research - University of Cambridge, and also Deputy Director of Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute (formerly known as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund). She is a member of European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), Academy of Medical Sciences fellow, and Royal Society fellow.
In 2011, Professor Watt was chosen to become Director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, a department of King's College London that intends to promote collaboration between scientists and clinicians to enhance the progress of the potential of stem cells into clinical reality for patients. As of January 2012, Watt began organizing previous research findings at King's College and proceeded to institute her own research program involving the use of stem cells in regenerative medicine and disease, especially the development and renewal of epidermal stem cells.
Her major research interest is in the role of stem cells in adult tissue maintenance. For many of her studies, she uses mammalian epidermis as a model system, both in the context of genetically modified mice and epidermal reconstitution in culture.
Some of her current projects are exploring self-renewal and lineage selection by human and mouse epidermal stem cells, the role of stem cells in epidermal and oral tumor formation, and the nature of mesenchymal cells in skin. She also actively collaborates with bioengineers and chemists in order to study stem cell-niche interactions in vitro. Her lab is particularly concerned with the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic factors in the regulation of the cell fate decisions.
She collaborates with bioinformaticians and computational biologists who are helping explore stem cell heterogeneity at single cell resolution. With Richard Durbin at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute I lead HIPSCI – the Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Initiative – to examine how genetic variation between cells impacts on their phenotypic behavior in culture.
Stem Cell Research
In Watt's lab, the researchers study the adult mammalian epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, which is maintained throughout life by the differentiation of stem cells into hair follicles, sebaceous glands, and interfollicular epidermis. Generally, these stem cells remain dormant and do not divide, but proliferation is initiated by damage. Professor Watt's lab and others have discovered many stem cells markers including high expression of 1 integrins, but their goal is to determine whether or not stem cell markers are hard-wired or expressed due to certain environmental cues depending on where the stem cells are located.
During this process, researchers in Watt's lab found that most of these cell surface markers control behavior of the stem cells and certain factors affect those behaviors. Two factors that Watt's lab investigate are the enzyme Rho GTPase Rac1 and c-Myc, a proto-oncogene. Watt and colleagues found that Rac1 is required for maintaining epidermal stem cells by deleting Rac1 in adult epidermal cells which caused an increase in proliferation resulting in premature terminal differentiation.
Another factor that Watt's lab studies is β-catenin. High levels of β-catenin cause ectopic hair follicle development in adult epidermal cells. Watt's lab has studied β-catenin by fusing it to a mutant oestrogen receptor. Through this process, timing and location of activation of β-catenin can be controlled. These researchers found that ectopic hair follicles induced by β-catenin possess cells which have stem cell properties. The future goal of the lab is to discover the interaction of different signaling pathways, and the different feedback mechanisms to control pathway activations.
Watt's lab also studies epidermal tumors, including the different signaling pathways and oncogenic mutations. The researchers have found that some tumors in sebaceous glands contain mutations in LEF1, a transcription factor that leads to β-catenin inhibition.
Despite her demanding career, Fiona Watt manages to maintain a wonderful family life with her spouse and three kids.
- Lane SW, Williams DA, Watt FM. ‘Modulating the stem cell niche for tissue regeneration.’ Nat Biotechnol. 2014 Aug 5. doi: 10.1038/nbt.2978. [Epub ahead of print] PMID 25093887 [PubMed]
- Kretzschmar K, Watt FM. ‘Markers of Epidermal Stem Cell Subpopulations in Adult Mammalian Skin.’ Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2014 Jul 3. pii: a013631. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a013631. [Epub ahead of print] PMID 24993676 [PubMed]
- Driskell R, Jahoda CA, Chuong CM, Watt F, Horsley V. ‘Defining dermal adipose tissue.’ Exp Dermatol. 2014 May 19. doi: 10.1111/exd.12450. [Epub ahead of print] PMID 24993676 [PubMed]
- ‘Epidermal Wnt/β-catenin signaling regulates adipocyte differentiation via secretion of adipogenic factors.’ Donati G, Proserpio V, Lichtenberger BM, Natsuga K, Sinclair R, Fujiwara H, Watt FM. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Apr 15;111(15):E1501-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1312880111. Epub 2014 Mar 31. PMID 24706781 [PubMed]
- ‘Distinct fibroblast lineages determine dermal architecture in skin development and repair.’ Driskell RR, Lichtenberger BM, Hoste E, Kretzschmar K, Simons BD, Charalambous M, Ferron SR, Herault Y, Pavlovic G, Ferguson-Smith AC, Watt FM. Nature. 2013 Dec 12;504(7479):277-81. doi: 10.1038/nature12783. PMID 24336287 [PubMed]
- 'The basement membrane of hair follicle stem cells is a muscle cell niche.' Fujiwara H, Ferreira M, Donati G, Marciano DK, Linton JM, Sato Y, Hartner A, Sekiguchi K, Reichardt LF, Watt FM. Cell. 2011 Feb 18;144(4):577-89. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.01.014. PMID 21335239 [PubMed]
- 'Diverse epigenetic strategies interact to control epidermal differentiation.' Mulder KW, Wang X, Escriu C, Ito Y, Schwarz RF, Gillis J, Sirokmány G, Donati G, Uribe-Lewis S, Pavlidis P, Murrell A, Markowetz F, Watt FM. Nat Cell Biol. 2012 Jun 24;14(7):753-63. doi: 10.1038/ncb2520. PMID 22729083 [PubMed]
- 'Extracellular-matrix tethering regulates stem-cell fate.' Trappmann B, Gautrot JE, Connelly JT, Strange DG, Li Y, Oyen ML, Cohen Stuart MA, Boehm H, Li B, Vogel V, Spatz JP, Watt FM, Huck WT. Nat Mater. 2012 May 27;11(7):642-9. doi: 10.1038/nmat3339. Erratum in: Nat Mater. 2012 Aug;11(8):742. PMID 22635042 [PubMed]
Awards, Recognitions, and Accomplishments
Past and Present Positions
- 2012–present Director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, King’s College London School of Medicine
- 2006 - 2012 Deputy Director, Cambridge CR-UK Institute (since September 2005); Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics, Cambridge University and Deputy Director, Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research; Fellow of St John’s College
- 1987 - 2006 Head of Keratinocyte Laboratory, CR-UK London Research Institute (formerly Imperial Cancer Research Fund), Principal Scientist 1992
- 1981 - 1986 Head of Molecular Cell Biology Laboratory, Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, London
- 1979 - 1981 Postdoctoral Associate, M.I.T., Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
- 1976 - 1979 Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford - D.Phil.
- Current Stem Cell Research and Therapy
- eLIFE Sciences
- EMBO Molecular Medicine
- Expert Review of Dermatology, Cell Stem Cell
- Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
- StemBook, the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology
- Academia Europaea (since 2009)
- Cell and Developmental Biology
- European Molecular Biology Organization (since 1999)
- ‘Faculty of 1000’ Online Review Service
- Fondazione Piemontese per la Ricerca sul Cancro
- Harvard Stem Cell Institute
- Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (iCeMS) of Kyoto University
- Institute of Bioengineering, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
- Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA)
- International Society for Stem Cell Research Board of Directors
- North East England Stem Cell Institute
- Ontario-wide Stem Cell Initiative and Centre for Commercialization in Regenerative Medicine
- Scientific Advisory Boards of the Canadian Stem Cell Network
- Steering Committee for the UK Stem Cell Bank
- Wellcome Trust Centre for Gene Regulation and Expression
- Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards Expert Review Group
- Academy of Medical Sciences (since 2000)
- Royal Society (since 2003)
Honors and Awards
- 1990 - Biological Council Medal
- 1999 - William Montagna Award of the American Society for Investigative Dermatology
- 1999-2006 - President of the British Society for Cell Biology
- 2001 - Tanioku Memorial Lectureship, Prize of Japanese Society for Investigative Dermatology
- 2001 - CE.R.I.E.S. (CEntre de Recherches et d’Investigations Epidermiques et Sensorielles) Research Award of Chanel
- 2003 - FEDERA award of the Dutch Federation of Medical Scientific Societies
- 2004 - William Harvey Lecture, St Bartholomew’s hospital, London
- 2006 - Almroth Wright Lecture, Imperial College London
- 2006 - Ebling Award of the European Hair Research Society
- 2008 - President, International Society for Stem Cell Research
- 2008 - Honorary Foreign Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2008 - ASCB Women in Cell Biology Senior Award
- 2009 - Distinguished lecturer, International Association for Dental Research
- Baker, Monya (2008-07-10). "Fiona Watt: expanding niches for stem cell researchers". Nature Reports Stem Cells. doi:10.1038/stemcells.2008.105. ISSN 1754-8705. Retrieved 2013-12-28.
- Girard, Lisa (2013-09-26). "Fiona Watt talks with StemBook about the epidermis, the Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Initiative, and women in science". StemBook. Retrieved 2013-12-28.
- "Female-Fellows of the Royal Society" (PDF), The Royal Society, retrieved 2013-12-28
- "World-leading stem cell expert to lead new Centre". King's Health Partners. 2011-06-15. Retrieved 2013-12-28.
- University of Cambridge – School of the Biological Sciences – Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research – Epidermal Stem Cell Biology – Fiona Watt
- "Fiona Watt, Deputy Editor". eLife, The new funder-researcher collaboration and open-access journal for outstanding advancements in life and biomedical research. Retrieved 2013-12-28.
- "Balancing Work and Life: A Conversation with Fiona Watt", NCBI, 2014-11-18
- "Professor Fiona M. Watt FRS FMedSci", King's College London, 2014-11-18
- "World-leading Stem Cell Expert to Lead New Centre ", King's Health Partners, 2014-11-18
- "About Us", Watt Lab: Stem Cells in Their Environment, 2014-11-18
- "Epidermal Stem Cell Biology: Fiona Watt", University of Cambridge, 2014-11-18
- Academy of Medical Sciences
- Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute
- Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine
- European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)
- International Society of Stem Cell Research
- Nature Reports Stem Cells Q&A with Fiona Watt
- Royal Society
- Stem Cells and Human Health