Dr Heiko Wurdak

Dr Heiko Wurdak


Dr Wurdak received training in biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics during his undergraduate studies at the Technical University, Darmstadt, Germany. After completion of the Diploma in biology, he joined the laboratory of Professor Lukas Sommer at the ETH Zurich as a doctoral student. Dr Wurdak’s PhD work involved lineage tracing of neural stem cell populations, phenotypic analysis of tissues & stem cell derivatives in vivo, and cell signalling studies. He demonstrated that neural crest stem cell-specific ablation of TGFbeta signalling results in developmental malformations reminiscent of a congenital disease termed DiGeorge syndrome. Moreover, he found that TGFbeta signalling is implicated in eye and midbrain development.

In 2006, Dr Wurdak was awarded the ETH Zurich outstanding dissertation award and became an EMBO (and subsequently AACR) postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Peter G. Schultz at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), La Jolla, USA. He studied small molecules that regulate the fate of somatic and tumour stem cells of the central nervous system and gained comprehensive experience in interdisciplinary research identifying factors that cause differentiation of both brain tumour and embryonic stem cells through large-scale genomic and chemical screens. He also characterized small molecule-directed adult neurogenesis and neural stem cell fate. In 2011, Dr Wurdak started his independent academic career at Leeds as a 'Senior Translational Research (tenure-track) Fellow'. He received the MRC New Investigator grant and EU/FP7 Marie Curie Career Re-integration award in 2012 and established the 'Stem Cell and Brain Tumour Group'. Since 2016, Dr Wurdak holds a lecturer position at the University of Leeds.

Research interests

The research in the Wurdak (Stem Cell and Brain Tumour) group focuses on malignancies of substantial unmet need, in particular, high-grade brain tumours. The 5-year survival time for these tumours is below 5% and a better understanding of the cellular mechanisms that mediate brain tumour progression and recurrence is urgently required. We are interested in the development of new therapeutic approaches (e.g., small molecules, nanomaterials, biotherapeutics), which requires an understanding as to how well the preclinical research models incorporate the specific disease characteristics of the individual patient, and how well we can monitor and visualize cellular behaviour at the single cell level and in real-time.

Accordingly, we employ a  2-pronged research strategy that aims to provide i) a better understanding of tumour-promoting mechanisms at a systems biology level, for example using small molecules, cellular phenotyping, and chemical biology, and ii) an improved spectrum of personalized cancer models via stem cell, induced pluripotency, organoid, and in vivo modelling approaches. Based on this overarching strategy, we aim to shed light on the molecular link between metabolism and chaperone function, in particular in the context of cancer cell metabolic rewiring. Furthermore, we are interested in elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying a malignant self-renewal capacity leading to 'differentiation blockage' in cancer stem-like cells and the role of cell-fate plasticity in brain tumour progression.  

Student education

Dr Wurdak's teaching currently focuses on brain cancer, stem cell and organoid biology (lectures as well as experimental project work at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels).

Research groups and institutes

  • Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St James's
  • Brain Cancer Research Group

Current postgraduate research students

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://medicinehealth.leeds.ac.uk/research-opportunities">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>