Home | News | Nine young scientists will conduct cutting-edge research at CNIO thanks to the solidarity of thousands of donors

Nine young scientists will conduct cutting-edge research at CNIO thanks to the solidarity of thousands of donors

13.06.2023

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From left to right: Clara Reglero, Rayan Naser, Mikhail Chesnokov, Bárbara Hernando, Isabel Espejo, Ivó Hernández, Carolina Villaroya and María Martínez. / Laura M. Lombardía, CNIO.

The contributions of more than 2,400 ‘Friends of CNIO’ have already allowed 34 exceptional scientists to continue their research into cancer

The donors are individuals, associations and companies, including L’Oréal Spain and its brand La Roche-Posay

The nine researchers selected for this latest edition have previously conducted research in the United Kingdom, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, France, the United States and, of course, elsewhere in Spain

They are researching ageing, pancreatic cancer and how to detect metastasis early on, among other areas. Without this Friends of CNIO contract, some of them may have had to quit science

The excitement of making a discovery and knowing that discovery will help others are truly great rewards for those who dedicate themselves to research. But a career in science also includes a long period of intense competition to access the best institutions, and valuable people can sometimes end up quitting due to a lack of opportunities. The contributions of more than 2,400 donors to the Friends of CNIO philanthropic initiative are helping more young researchers to advance in this postdoctoral stage, by joining the National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO).

The Friends of CNIO International Contracts allow CNIO to allocate donations to retain gifted young researchers in Spain and attract international talent. So far, a total of 34 young researchers have been recruited through Friends of CNIO, after completing a demanding evaluation.

On this occasion, the nine scientists chosen to take part in the programme are researching areas of high activity for the international scientific community, such as ageing -the origin of most of the diseases that affect us today-, pancreatic cancer -one of the most lethal forms with the fewest therapeutic options-, and the search for biomarkers to detect early metastasis.

As noted by Maria A. Blasco, the Director of CNIO, the new Friends of CNIO researchers “represent the cutting edge of cancer research, and we are very proud that they have chosen CNIO to continue advancing their careers.”

Isabel Espejo (Seville, 1994)
Telomeres and Telomerase Group (CNIO) – Humanism and Science Foundation

Friends of CNIO – La Roche-Posay contract

Isabel’s postdoctoral contract is funded by L’Oréal Spain and its brand La Roche-Posay. Her goal is to investigate the origin of skin damage from chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Specifically, Isabel will study the impact of these cancer treatments on the molecular mechanisms that control the state of telomeres, the structures at the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA. “Alterations in telomeres affect important biological processes, from ageing to cancer,” she says.

Isabel will use long-read sequencing technology for her research, named technology of the year in 2022 by the journal Nature Methods, and which has enabled the first complete sequencing of a human genome.

Isabel completed her doctorate at the Centre for Genome Regulation (CRG). Her main motivation for joining CNIO is “to work in a multidisciplinary and innovative environment that seeks solutions to the challenges of society, focusing particularly on molecular biology and genetics”.

Bárbara Hernando (Castellón de la Plana, 1988)
Computational Oncology Group (CNIO)

Having gained her doctorate from the Universidad Jaume I de Castellón, Bárbara has conducted research in the United Kingdom (London Metropolitan University; UCL Cancer Institute) and the United States (University of Cincinnati). CNIO is developing computational models to characterise the causes of each type of chromosomal instability – a feature of cancer related to metastasis. Bárbara is also seeking new therapeutic strategies that allow for more personalised treatments in cancers with higher mortality rates.

The Friends of CNIO contract “will allow me to work in a centre of excellence with the technology and resources I need to develop strategies that improve the diagnosis, management and treatment of patients with aggressive tumours,” she says.

Carolina Villarroya (Zaragoza, 1987)
Experimental Oncology Group (CNIO)

Carolina is investigating new therapies to tackle pancreatic cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. “Both tumours are related to mutations in the KRAS gene, which causes most of these cancers,” she explains. Her goal is to discover the mechanisms of resistance to current therapies and identify therapeutic targets whose inhibition combined with the KRAS pathway achieves complete tumour regression. 

She has researched at CNIC (National Centre for Cardiovascular Research) and Cornell University (USA), as well as at CNIO. In one of her latest papers, she analysed the exceptional case of a person who has survived 12 tumours, opening up new avenues of early diagnosis and immunotherapy in cancer.

“Without the Friends of CNIO contract, I would have been forced to quit science”

Ivó Hernández (Murcia, 1991)
Genomic Instability Group (CNIO)

Ivó is exploring the molecular mechanisms that regulate the TFEB protein, which are relevant in cell cleaning processes related to ageing and cancer. His goal is “to find new chemical and genetic strategies to enhance their activity in patients and prolong life expectancy in a healthy way”.

He has been working at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Centre (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid). Without the Friends of CNIO contract, “most likely I would have been forced to interrupt my projects”.

Rayan Naser (Beirut, Lebanon, 1988)
Growth Factors, Nutrients and Cancer Group (CNIO)

Rayan has worked in Lebanon (American University and Lebanese American University in Beirut) and Saudi Arabia (King Abdullah University). Her aim is to “clarify the structure of the URI protein complex to understand its behaviour and see how its alteration induces cancer.” Rayan will use protein engineering, biochemistry and electron cryo-microscopy to lay the structural foundations of URI and its role in cancer, and propose new therapeutic approaches based on altering this protein complex.

“The Friends of CNIO contract has given me a special opportunity to collaborate with leading scientists, have access to cutting-edge tools and participate in projects that advance science,” she says.

Mikhail Chesnokov (Moscow, 1988)
Epithelial Carcinogenesis Group (CNIO)

Mikhail is studying the molecular mechanisms involved in pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer: “I am investigating the role of NR5A2, a protein that regulates cell differentiation in the pancreas, intestine and liver, and protects against inflammatory phenomena.” He aims to understand how the manipulation of NR5A2 and other molecules that cooperate with it contribute to prevent/improve pancreatitis and reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Mikhail has researched in Russia (State University in Moscow; N. N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Centre) and in the U.S. (University of Illinois in Chicago; University of Minnesota).

If he had not secured the contract, his “best option” would have been to “move from one country to another, sending countless applications and hoping to get any possible science-related position,” he explains. “It is a very difficult time for Russian scientists… Another option, even less desirable, would have been to stay in Russia and fight to continue my research under the constant pressure of limited funding and even more limited connections to the world. The Friends of CNIO contract has completely changed my life.”

Clara Reglero (Madrid, 1988)
Hereditary Endocrine Cancer Group (CNIO)

Clara is working on the validation of new genetic targets detected through sequencing techniques and computational analysis, to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with hereditary cancer: “The main aim of my project is to identify new molecular mechanisms in cases with a predisposition to cancer where the cause is unknown,” she explains.

She has worked at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Centre and at the University of Columbia,  USA. “Thanks to the Friends of CNIO, I can work in one of the best cancer research centres in Spain, my home country,” she says.

Elena Jiménez-Ortega (Albacete, 1991)
Genome Integrity and Structural Biology Group (CNIO)

Elena is studying “the three-dimensional structure of proteins involved in the replication and maintenance of the mitochondrial genome,” she explains. An association between mitochondrial DNA defects and various types of cancer has recently been discovered, although the mechanisms have not been investigated to date.

Elena began her research career at the  Rocasolano Institute of Physical Chemistry (IQFR-CSIC). This contract will allow her to “apply my knowledge in structural biology to cancer research, and be involved in designing new therapies,” she says.

María Martínez (Burgos, 1989)
Group for Macromolecular Complexes in the Response to DNA Damage (CNIO)

María has conducted research in Germany (European Molecular Biology Laboratory, EMBL) and France (Pasteur Institute). She studies amino acid transporters, “a group of proteins responsible for the movement of amino acids through biological membranes,” she explains. Her goal is to advance towards the development of drugs that specifically target these transporters, since the altered transportation of amino acids can cause tumours, metabolic diseases, and neurological disorders.

Working at CNIO with this contract will allow her to “establish productive collaborations and transfer research to clinical practice,” she says.

Donations turned into research

Last year, we also benefited from the direct and very active collaboration not only of people, associations and foundations, but of companies that have been an essential ally when it comes to financing these contracts. L’Oréal Spain and its brand La Roche-Posay fund one of the contracts. Other collaborating companies include Brother Iberia, Corporación RTVE, Grupo Santa Lucía and JC Decaux. CNIO thanks all of them for their support.  

As Jessica Rose Joy, director of the CNIO Office of Philanthropy, says , “We want our donors –individuals, foundations, and businesses– to feel they are active agents in cancer research. Our job is to turn their donations into research.”

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