L'Oréal Portugal Medals of Honor for Women in Science for two CiBB scientists

Cláudia Deus (MIA-Portugal) and Laetitia Gaspar (CNC-UC)

Cláudia Deus (MIA-Portugal) and Laetitia Gaspar (CNC-UC)

Laetitia Gaspar, researcher at CNC-UC, and Cláudia Deus, researcher at MIA-Portugal, were awarded the L'Oréal Portugal Medals of Honor for Women in Science. 

Do people with sleep apnea age faster? How can the Nrf2 gene, whose function is diminished in Parkinson's patients, be activated? How do parasites interact with tissues in different parts of the body? How do epithelia respond to pressures, preserving their shape and functions, which are altered in various diseases?

These are some of the starting questions for the four scientific projects distinguished this year by the L'Oréal Portugal Medals of Honor for Women in Science, an initiative of L'Oréal Portugal in conjunction with the National Commission for UNESCO (CNU) and the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). The program, now in its 20th year, will support the research of CiBB scientists Laetitia Gaspar (CNC-UC) and Cláudia Deus (MIA-Portugal). The other two medals were awarded to Sara Silva Pereira (Centro de Investigação Biomédica da Universidade Católica Portuguesa) and Mariana Osswald (Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde da Universidade do Porto). 

The four researchers, already PhDs and aged between 31 and 37, were selected from among several dozen candidates for the relevance of their projects presented in 2023. Each will receive an individual prize of 15,000 euros. The selection was made by a scientific jury chaired by Alexandre Quintanilha, retired full professor and researcher in the field of Physics.

It should be noted that L'Oréal's support for women in science formally began in 1998, with a partnership with UNESCO, which gave rise to the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program, awarding five renowned scientists each year, one from each region of the world. 132 great women scientists have already been honored, seven of whom subsequently received a Nobel Prize.

This international program has inspired dozens of local initiatives aimed at young women and women researchers, supporting them in continuing their scientific careers and raising awareness among decision-makers - and society in general - of science without gender barriers. It was in this context that the L'Oréal Portugal Medals of Honor for Women in Science were born in 2004. Each year, the national initiative honors young female scientists with doctorates, aged up to 35 (plus one year for each child) and with promising projects in the areas of Science, Engineering and Technology for Health or the Environment. 

“It is a great pride to look at these young women who knew how to make their way, who stood firm in moving forward and who, over these two decades, have been a role model and an inspiration to many other young scientists. They are proof that knowledge and science have no gender!” said Gonçalo Nascimento, L'Oréal's Country Coordinator in Portugal, reiterating L'Oréal's commitment to continuing to promote equitable science and supporting the women who move it forward, both locally and through the international initiatives it carries out every year. 

Since 2004, 69 female researchers have been recognized in Portugal through this program, including four in this 20th edition. Ten of them won the award as CiBB scientists (integrated at the time of the award into CNC-UC, iCBR or MIA-Portugal): Cláudia Pereira (2004), Inês Araújo (2005), Anabela Rolo (2007), Paula Moreira (2008), Joana Salgado (2009), Liliana Bernardino (2010), Margarida Abrantes (2021), Raquel Boia (2022), Laetitia Gaspar (2023) and Cláudia Deus (2023). 

What are the changes caused by sleep apnea that can accelerate or aggravate the aging process? Do people with this syndrome age more quickly? And can treatment reverse or slow down this process?

These are some of the questions that Laetitia Gaspar is trying to answer with the awarded project - Awake to Aging: connecting the dots between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and accelerated Aging -, following on from previous research which has shown a link between obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, the aging process and the onset of various diseases - such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression, among others - observed when this sleep disorder is left untreated.

“We intend to study different types of changes related to the aging process in blood samples from patients with sleep apnea, compared to individuals without the disease,” explains the researcher, who will also evaluate how these changes respond to treatment with a continuous positive pressure mask, the most common treatment in the context of sleep apnea.

With the data collected, Laetitia also intends to explore potential indicators of the existence of this disease that can be detected in the blood. If these biomarkers can be determined, new diagnostic and patient monitoring strategies could be developed. Likewise, the study of these bioindicators - and knowledge of how they evolve once therapy has begun - could provide information on the effectiveness of treatment.

“If we can have indicators of the presence of the disease in the blood, we will be completely changing the landscape of diagnosis and monitoring the response to sleep apnea treatment. We could diagnose it with a simple blood test!", the researcher illustrates, recalling that, currently, lack of knowledge and little importance given to sleep is one of the main barriers to diagnosis, added to which are the difficulties of diagnosis itself, which require a sleep study.

It should be remembered that obstructive sleep apnea syndrome is a respiratory disorder characterized by a brief but frequent blockage of the airways, which partially or totally interrupts breathing. This is one of the most common sleep disorders in the world: it is estimated that 936 million adults globally live with mild to severe obstructive sleep apnea. It is also estimated that around 80% to 90% of cases go undiagnosed and therefore remain untreated.

Is it possible to activate the Nrf2 gene, whose function is diminished in Parkinson's patients, using nanometric vesicles released by our cells and modified with synthetic messenger RNA that codes for this gene?

This is one of the questions that Cláudia Deus wants to answer in order to improve future therapies and scientific knowledge about Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the central nervous system, causing a progressive deterioration and loss of the brain cells responsible for controlling movement - the dopaminergic neurons.

Although the exact mechanism associated with the loss of these brain cells is not completely known, there is evidence that mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress are important pathophysiological components and that they manifest even before the onset of motor symptoms, explains the researcher.

In previous studies, Cláudia had already shown that the metabolic and mitochondrial alterations characteristic of the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons observed in Parkinson's patients are also present in their skin cells. In addition, he also demonstrated that the expression of the Nrf2 gene - a gene capable of directly and indirectly regulating around 250 other genes involved in the cell's defense mechanisms against oxidative stress - is decreased in Parkinson's disease. 

Activation of the Nrf2 gene could be achieved using synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA), a recent technology that has been the basis of some COVID-19 vaccines. However, the clinical use of synthetic mRNA is limited as it is necessary to develop safe and efficient carriers that transport it in the body and release it in the cells where it needs to act. 

In this project - Small extracellular vesicles-based Nrf2 mRNA delivery as a therapeutic approach for Parkinson’s Disease - Claúdia proposes to test extracellular vesicles as a new “transport and delivery medium” to deliver synthetic mRNA coding for the Nrf2 gene into cells. “Extracellular vesicles are nanometric vesicles (around 100 nm) released by all the cells in our body and are responsible for transmitting biological information between cells,” she explains. If this innovative delivery system is successful, it could alter the progression of Parkinson's disease.

In parallel, Cláudia proposes to investigate the effects of this system on the metabolic and mitochondrial dysfunction associated with this disease, using cells isolated from the skin of Parkinson's patients themselves and, for the first time, in dopaminergic neurons generated from the cells of these same patients.

It should be remembered that the prevalence of Parkinson's disease has doubled globally in the last 25 years, according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that it affects more than 8.5 million individuals. In Portugal, the Portuguese Society of Neurology estimates that between 18,000 and 20,000 people live with Parkinson's disease. The disease has no cure and no means of early diagnosis.


Agência LIFT & CNC-UC

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