Research and Advanced Education
Luísa Figueiredo, the Scientist who is making it difficult for the Tsetse fly to sleep
Luísa Figueiredo, researcher at the Institute of Molecular Medicine (IMM), is currently a leading name in the Portuguese scientific community. She was one of eight Portuguese scientists to earn a 2 million Euro grant from the ERC (European Research Council) to develop her project on sleeping sickness.
“During my ERASMUS mobility in London I had the opportunity to study a Molecular Parasitology subject, which I knew little about. I was fascinated by the mechanisms used by the parasites to be able to establish themselves in their host. Hence, I decided to conduct research in parasitology. For my PhD I studied the parasite that causes malaria and then, in the post-doc, I switched to the parasite responsible for sleeping sickness (or African Human Trypanosomiasis)”.
Sleeping disease is caused by the bite of the Tsetse fly, which interferes with the internal clock, or circadian cycle. "Circadian clocks are autonomous cellular mechanisms that result from millions of years of evolution of organisms on a planet that revolves around itself in 24 hours".
The first step in the findings about sleeping sickness began in a joint effort with a group at Southwestern University, Dallas, in the United States. She then published an article in the journal Nature Microbiology which "for the first time, shows that the parasite responsible for sleeping sickness, Trypanosoma brucei, has its own internal clock". Untreated, "the most common disease and which is initially chronic leads to death in about 3 years".
Currently, Luísa Figueiredo is conducting the FatTryp project with her team: the great discovery is that, contrary to what was believed, which was that the parasite existed in great quantity in the blood, it predominates in the adipose tissue, what justifies the usual weight loss. With this they want to understand if the hiding in fat allows parasites to resist existing treatments.
"Our goal is to understand the mechanisms used by the parasite to manipulate the host and thus proliferate and ensure its transmission. Better knowledge of the disease and of the parasite will lead us to discover some of its most vulnerable points. These could be used as therapeutic targets", the scientist stresses out.
In addition to humans, this disease also affects other animals, such as cows and horses, which has a devastating economic impact. There are more than 60 million people at risk in Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) aims to eliminate this disease by 2020.
Portugal has been awarded 8 grants out of the 329 awarded to scientists in the 2017 ERC Consolidation Grants Competition under Horizon 20-20. Of the 8 scientists, 5 are women, which makes Portugal one of the countries with the most women winners.
The ERC's main activity is to provide long-term funding to outstanding researchers with seven to twelve years’ experience and who undertake high-impact research. The goal is that they can strengthen their teams by paying for human resources and acquiring materials and reagents.
Portugal received a total of 16 million Euros, from the 140 million already accounted for. Two thousand new jobs will be created.
Twenty-two countries in Europe received this funding. The United Kingdom (60 grants), Germany (56), France (38) and the Netherlands (25) received the largest number. And there are researchers from 39 nationalities, most of them Germans (55), Italians (33), Frenchmen (32) and British (31). For this competition, the ERC evaluated 2538 proposals and funded 13% (329). In the case of Portugal, according to the ERC, the success rate was 20%, thus above the European average.
Sources: Público Newspaper, iMM