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CNIO Friends Newsletter 49


Help us to stop cancer


Maria A. Blasco. / Amparo Garrido.Maria A. Blasco. / Amparo Garrido.

Dear CNIO Friends,

One of our main goals is to move towards an increasingly personalized medicine focused on early detection. In this newsletter we will tell you about some of the projects we are carrying out along these lines; ambitious and innovative studies that we are able to undertake here at the CNIO thanks to technologies such as a new sequencing equipment –the most powerful on the market today– capable of reading genetic information much faster and at a lower cost.

In the following pages we also explain our latest results. They are frontier results, such as discovering that the development of mammalian embryos is influenced by ancestral viruses inserted in our genome; or visualizing, by cryomicroscopy, the earliest stages in the formation of the microstructures that shape the cell, the microtubules.

Further findings from recent months bear the potential to impact disease treatments. Thus, at the CNIO we have discovered that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may be caused by an accumulation of ‘junk’ proteins in cells; also, that hepatitis B and C viruses can trigger multiple myeloma.

For this knowledge to reach clinical practice, the involvement of industry is essential. That is why we held our first CNIO Investors Day, a day in which leading venture capital firms came to learn first-hand about diagnostic and treatment-related projects that are already likely to lead to tangible products and services for patients.

Such events are one of our ways of opening our door to the rest of society. For example, through our presence at the ‘Madrid is Science’ education fair, where CNIO volunteers stimulated the curiosity of the youngest members of the public by showing them their daily work.

In addition, CNIO Arte took part once again at the contemporary art fair ARCO. At our stand we exhibited the work created on the seventh edition of this initiative, focused on the problem of climate change. The audiovisual piece END (two prologues), by the artist Dora García, National Plastic Arts Award 2021, resulted from her collaboration with David Nogués-Bravo, macroecologist at the Globe Institute in Copenhagen, and is a reflection on the loss of biodiversity and its consequences. A problem with consequences on ecosystems, climate, but also on science and our own health. García and Nogués-Bravo participated in February, together with other experts, in the 5th Symposium on Art and Science held in collaboration with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. This museum also exhibited on April 22 the piece END (two prologues) to commemorate Earth Day.

I say goodbye thanking you once again for your constant support. Thank you, always: you make us stronger.

Kind regards,

María A. Blasco



Isabel Espejo (Seville, 1994) joined the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in June 2023 with a CNIO Friends postdoctoral contract, funded mainly by La Roche-Posay, the dermo-cosmetic brand of L’Oréal Spain. From the Telomeres and Telomerase Group –led by Maria A. Blasco– she investigates the side effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy on the skin.

What did attract you to cancer research?

The level of the challenge – the heterogeneity of the disease. The perception people have of cancer is that it is just one disease, but it is much more complex than that. The deeper you get into understanding cancer, the more you become aware of the magnitude of the disease and just how multifaceted it is. 

What made you decide to become a scientist?

I love being a scientist, but I have a duality with doing more creative things as well. I think if I hadn’t become a scientist I would have become an artist. But I realised that it is difficult to approach science as a hobby. As a career, I think it gives you a real sense of worth in what you are doing. Science can also be very creative sometimes. And I still do some art in my free time! 

What is your favourite thing about your job?

Being intellectually challenged. It’s beautiful – it’s exciting. Sometimes when you go to a talk and you find out what people are doing, it can be incredible. Science is like a parallel universe that I can enter sometimes, it feels like a real privilege. 

Why did you want to come to the CNIO?

It is the best center in Madrid, and I wanted to continue to develop my career here in this city and have the chance to stay in Spain at a top institution.  

What do you like most about working at the CNIO?

It is a center that is growing and evolving a lot. I really like that. The CNIO is strong in some things that I was not so familiar with before, for example translational medicine. I have enjoyed learning more about that. The facilities are good and of course I love working with the people here, they are very kind. I have an access to many resources that I wouldn’t enjoy in other places. 

What do you want to be doing in 10 years?

I would love to become a bit hybrid, between the wet lab and the dry lab and develop some of my computational experience. I would also love to have another experience abroad at some point in my career. I am a really curious person,so I just want to continue to learn new things. 

I am so grateful to the CNIO Friends program for enabling my post-doc here at the CNIO and would like to express my special thanks to La Roche Posay for supporting my position. It’s been such a privilege, and I have really enjoyed getting to know the activities of its foundation.


CNIO will help to improve cancer prevention and personalized diagnosis with the most powerful ‘gene reader’

@CireniaSketches / CNIO.@CireniaSketches / CNIO.

The Novaseq-X Plus sequencing system at the National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) will speed up the search for genes that increase cancer risk, and for markers to detect the disease early. It will also help to personalise treatments and make them more effective, with fewer side effects. Further, it will facilitate single cell investigation into the genetic evolution of a tumour, which is important for counteracting metastasis and drug resistance.

Find out more



A virus that infected the first animals hundreds of millions of years ago has become essential for the development of the embryo

At least 8% of the human genome is genetic material from viruses. It was considered ‘junk DNA’ until recently, but its role in human development is now known to be essential. Sergio de la Rosa and Nabil Djouder discover the role of these viruses in a key process in development, when cells become pluripotent few hours after fertilization. They publish the finding in Science Advances.

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New immunotherapy for multiple myeloma proves in the lab to be more effective than CAR-T treatment already in use

A team led by Luis Álvarez-Vallina have developed a new cell-based immunotherapy to treat multiple myeloma, based on STAb cells. It has yet to pass clinical trials.

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Discontinuous food intake activates a ‘GPS gene’ in liver cells, thus completing the development of the liver after birth

After birth, liver cells acquire different functions depending on their location. CNIO researchers publish in Nature Communications that this specialization occurs with the onset of oral food intake, which is intermittent.

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Accumulation of ‘junk proteins’ identified as one cause of aging and possible source of ALS

Accumulation of "junk proteins": normal cells (left) and cells subjected to the effect of the toxic arginine-rich protein (right). In the latter, ribosomal proteins (green fluorescent) and the size of nucleoli (red) are increased. Credit: CNIO.Accumulation of "junk proteins": normal cells (left) and cells subjected to the effect of the toxic arginine-rich protein (right). In the latter, ribosomal proteins (green fluorescent) and the size of nucleoli (red) are increased. Credit: CNIO.

Óscar Fernández-Capetillo’s group offers a new hypothesis to understand the origin of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. This disease would be triggered by a similar problem to that occurring in a group of rare diseases called ribosomopathies. The study also opens a new front in aging research, providing experimental evidence that nucleolar stress causes aging in mammals.

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The molecule behind a potential new therapy for melanoma also plays a key role in autoimmune diseases

In 2021, the Microenvironment and Metastasis Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) discovered that, blocking the protein NGFR reduces metastasis in animals. As they work to develope a drug to do just that, they have found that NGFR is also key to the body’s ability to mount an effective immune response, and that it may be an important target for controlling autoimmune diseases. This has  been published in the journal Cell Reports,

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CNIO researchers discover a protein that prevents DNA triplication

Real image of DNA molecules being copied in human cells, visualized by immunofluorescence microscopy. / Sara Rodríguez-Acebes. CNIOReal image of DNA molecules being copied in human cells, visualized by immunofluorescence microscopy. / Sara Rodríguez-Acebes. CNIO

Every time a cell divides, its DNA is duplicated. If, instead of being copied once, the DNA is copied several times, i.e. tripled or even quadrupled, the likelihood of cancer increases. A study in The EMBO Journal identifies a natural ‘anti-failure’ mechanism in the DNA copying process, hitherto unknown.

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The case of a patient with multiple myeloma cured after hepatitis treatment reveals that this cancer can be caused by viruses, and opens up new treatment options

According to a paper published in Haematologica, hepatitis C and B viruses are one of the causes of multiple myeloma, one of the most frequent in the blood, and the pathologies that precede it, monoclonal gammopathies. Early identification of an infection with these viruses can help doctors to prescribe appropriate treatment and prevent it from leading to malignant pathologies.

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First atomic-scale ‘movie’ of microtubules under construction, a key process for cell division

During cell division microtubules function as nanometer-thick long ‘ropes’ inside cells that pull chromosomes apart so that each daughter cell receives a copy of the genetic material.

The finding lays the groundwork for future advances in the treatment of diseases ranging from cancer to neurodevelopmental disorders.

Neuronal ‘gateway’ for essential molecules in learning and memory observed at the atomic level

Unravelling what exactly happens at the molecular level when neurons talk to each other, at the synapses, is essential for understanding the human brain in general, and for solving mental health problems in particular. A new study reveals the protein’s structure and mechanism of action of a protein that acts as the gateway for key amino acids involved in cognitive processes to enter and exit neurons.

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Combination of fasting and chemotherapy may improve cancer response, with different effects according to each sex

Fluorescence microscopy visualization of melanoma cells. Credit: CNIOFluorescence microscopy visualization of melanoma cells. Credit: CNIO

New study reveals that the positive effect of combining fasting and chemotherapy in a controlled manner is more pronounced in males than in females. The result shows the importance of considering sex when designing personalized therapeutic strategies.

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Full house at cnio’s stand at the ‘madrid es ciencia’ fair

Under the slogan ‘We do research to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer’, CNIO took part in the education fair ‘Madrid es Ciencia’. At the CNIO stand scientists showed the experiments they perform every day and answered questions about their profession to a most enthusiastic audience, mainly school children and high-school students.

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The urgent need to avoid a sixth mass extinction inspires ‘End (two prologues)’, Dora García’s film for CNIO Arte 2024

Still from the film Still from the film 'END (two prologues)' by Dora García, made for CNIO Arte 2024.

Climate catastrophe, human memory and the female voice are intertwined in END (two prologues), the film created for CNIO Arte 2024 by artist Dora García, winner of the National Prize for Plastic Arts in 2021, in collaboration with David Nogués-Bravo, macroecologist from the Globe Institute in Copenhagen.

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First ‘CNIO Investors Day’ to help bridge the gap between cancer research and patient treatment

From the left: Sonia Martínez, Joaquín Pastor y Carmen Blanco, researchers of the Experimental Therapies program at CNIO, with Roke Oruezabal, from CNIO’s Innovation program. / E. Sánchez. CNIOFrom the left: Sonia Martínez, Joaquín Pastor y Carmen Blanco, researchers of the Experimental Therapies program at CNIO, with Roke Oruezabal, from CNIO’s Innovation program. / E. Sánchez. CNIO

A dozen venture capital firms, as well as funding and consulting firms, listened carefully to the ideas of some of Spain’s best cancer researchers, scientists from CNIO, to turn their scientific results into tangible advances for patients. It was at the CNIO Investors Day, an event to promote ties between knowledge generators and agents of the productive fabric.

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The search for a liquid biopsy for the early detection of pancreatic cancer summons top European experts in this tumor at the CNIO

CNIO researchers Héctor Peinado and Nùria Malats, with PANCAID coordinator Klaus Pantel in the center. / Mónica G. Salomone. CNIOCNIO researchers Héctor Peinado and Nùria Malats, with PANCAID coordinator Klaus Pantel in the center. / Mónica G. Salomone. CNIO

Europe’s leading researchers in pancreatic cancer presented their advances towards a liquid biopsy at the general assembly of the European project PANCAID (Pancreatic Cancer Initial Detection by Liquid Biopsy), held at CNIO’s Auditorium. PANCAID is an international consortium including CNIO. Led at the CNIO by Nùria Malats and Héctor Peinado, it will receive a total funding of 9.8 million euros from the European Commission (EC) until 2027.

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Blood could eventually become a tool against aging, Wyss-Coray says

Tony Wyss Coray after his seminar at CNIO. Credit Laura M. Lombardía / CNIO. Tony Wyss Coray after his seminar at CNIO. Credit Laura M. Lombardía / CNIO.

Stanford University researcher Tony Wyss-Coray has shown that plasma from young mice improves brain function and memory in older mice. In a seminar held at CNIO, he explained how a blood test can be used to profile an ‘aging atlas’ of the body. The brain specialist predicted a coming explosion of trials for the clinical application of studies based on this new view of blood.

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Distinguished Seminars

Sjors Scheres
Molecular pathology of neurodegenerative diseases by cryo-EM of amyloids

Lindsay Hinck
Consequences of Physiological DNA Damage in the Breast and Uterus

Joseph Schlessinger
Cell Signaling By Receptor Tyrosine Kinases; From Basic Principles To Cancer Therapies

Ailong Ke
New Frontiers in CRISPR-Cas Biology – RNA-guided Proteases and Ancestorial Cas9s in Transposons

Mariam Jamal-Hanjani
Insights into lung cancer evolution and metastasis in TRACERx and PEACE.

Manuel Perucho
Serendipity, DNA fingerprinting, and cancer discoveries

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