Ten Latin American Scientists Named 2008 Pew Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences

Contact: Kip Patrick, 202.552.2135

Washington, DC - 06/12/2008 - The Pew Charitable Trusts and the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) announced today that 10 promising biomedical scientists have been named 2008 Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences. Funded by Pew through a grant to UCSF, the highly competitive fellowship program offers talented young Latin American scientists $60,000 for a two-year training period. The award is administered by the sponsoring U.S. institution, which supplements the stipend with at least $5,000 a year and also provides medical benefits for the fellow. Following the two year fellowship, the Program will issue an additional $35,000 award to the sponsoring institution to purchase equipment and supplies for the fellow to establish a laboratory in his or her home country.

“Pew’s Latin American Fellows Program gives these exemplary scientists the opportunity to further their knowledge, and it promotes exchange and collaboration between researchers in the United States and Latin America,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences was launched in 1991 to help develop a cadre of highly trained Latin American scientists who could stimulate and contribute to the growth of quality biomedical science and foster collaboration between scientists in Latin America and the U.S.  Since 1991, the Trusts has invested more than $11 million to fund more than 150 fellows, close to 80 percent of whom have returned to their home countries. Applicants from all Central and South American countries are invited to apply, and selection is made by a distinguished national advisory committee chaired by Dr. Torsten N. Wiesel, president emeritus of Rockefeller University and a 1981 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine.

The 2008 Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences are:
FellowHost Laboratory
Mariano Andres Belluscio, Ph.D., Argentina Rutgers University
Katia Carneiro de Paula, Ph.D., BrazilForsyth Institute/Harvard School of Dental Medicine
Mauro Javier Cortez Véliz, Ph.D., BrazilYale University
Maria de la Paz Fernández, Ph.D., ArgentinaHarvard University
Nicolas Frankel, Ph.D., ArgentinaPrinceton University
Paula Licona-Limón, Ph.D., MexicoYale University
Leticia Irene Llarrull, Ph.D., ArgentinaUniversity of Notre Dame
Cecilia Martin, Ph.D., MexicoMassachusetts General Hospital
Hector Alex Saka, Ph.D., ArgentinaDuke University
Marcos Sawada Simões-Costa, Ph.D., BrazilCalifornia Institute of Technology

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Belluscio.jpgMariano Andres Belluscio, Ph.D., received a doctorate in neurophysiology from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2008.   He will train with Dr. Gregory Buzsaki at Rutgers University.  Dr. Belluscio plans to explore how neurons in the brain act together to record and recall memories.  The coordinated activity of neurons in the brain is thought to underlie everything from the processing of memories to the planning of future activities.  But no one has yet proven that such a synchronized neuronal ballet takes place when an animal “thinks.”  Combining state-of-the-art techniques for simultaneously monitoring the activities of 50 to 100 different neurons in an awake rat with a novel behavioral test designed to encourage animals to think back and to think ahead, Dr. Belluscio will examine the patterns of neural activity that occur when rats remember what they did before and plan to do next.  His findings could deepen our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that form the basis of memory, planning and decision making.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Carneiro.jpgKatia Carneiro de Paula, Ph.D., received a doctorate in developmental biology from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 2007.  She will train with Dr. Michael Levin of the Forsyth Institute (an independent institute in Boston promoting oral health through research and education) and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.  Dr. Carneiro will investigate how serotonin influences the establishment of the left–right body axis during embryonic development.  Thanks to the popularity of antidepressants that boost the amount of serotonin bathing the brain, the molecule has gained widespread recognition for its role in regulating mood.  But studies in Dr. Levin’s lab have recently shown that serotonin also plays a key role in allowing embryos to differentiate left from right.  When this crucial patterning step is disrupted, organs are placed in the wrong locations.  Using state-of-the-art techniques in genetics and cell and molecular biology, Dr. Carneiro hopes to characterize the intracellular machinery that allows serotonin to carry out its developmental duties in the embryos of frogs.  Her work will enhance our understanding of embryonic development and could lead to new methods for detecting and treating a broad class of birth defects.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Belluscio.jpgMauro Javier Cortez Véliz, Ph.D., received a doctorate in microbiology, immunology and parasitology from the Federal University of São Paulo School of Medicine in 2004.  He will train with Dr. Norma Andrews (former Fellows advisory committee member) at Yale University.  Dr. Cortez will investigate how Leishmania parasites obtain the nutrients they need to multiply and cause disease.  These parasites are transmitted to humans by sandflies, taking up residence inside specialized compartments in human immune cells.  Scientists have learned that iron is a key nutrient for Leishmania parasites.  When an immune cell is infected with the parasite, it starts pumping iron out of these internal compartments, a mechanism presumably meant to combat infection by diminishing the parasites’ iron reserves.  However, the Andrews lab discovered that, in retaliation, Leishmania release a special transporter protein that competes with the immune cell pumps to draw iron back into the parasite’s lair.  Combining a range of biochemical, cell biological and microscopic techniques, Dr. Cortez intends to determine how iron depletion triggers the production of this transporter protein.  His work should enhance our understanding of the host–parasite relationship, and could lead to new ways of treating or preventing the diseases caused by Leishmania.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Carneiro.jpgMaria de la Paz Fernández, Ph.D., received a doctorate in biological sciences from the National University of Buenos Aires in 2007.  She will study with Dr. Edward Kravitz at the Harvard Medical School.  Dr. Fernández will explore the role that taste plays in controlling aggression in fruit flies.  Aggression is a complex social behavior used to obtain or defend resources, but it can be time- consuming and dangerous.  Animals must be able to quickly ascertain if similar animals are foes or potential mates so they can determine the correct behavioral response.  Prior studies suggest that the brain region that processes information about taste helps flies decide whether to mate or fight.  Using state-of-the-art techniques in molecular biology, neurophysiology and behavior, Dr. Fernández hopes to determine whether certain proteins involved in courting also are involved in aggression, and whether nerve cells in the fly’s taste bristles communicate with cells in the brain region that modulates whether a fly will “play nice” or fight.  Her work could help clarify the relationship between courtship and aggression, and could suggest new ways to regulate these behaviors.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Belluscio.jpgNicolas Frankel, Ph.D., received a doctorate in biology from the University of Buenos Aires in 2006.  He will work with Dr. David L. Stern at Princeton University.  Dr. Frankel will investigate the genetic changes that give rise to noticeable differences between related species.  In most species of fruit fly, the developing embryos are covered with fine hairs; however, in larva of the species Drosophila sechellia, some of these hairs are missing, giving the embryos a “shaven” look.  Dr. Stern and his colleagues discovered that this embryonic alopecia (hair loss) is caused by the inactivation of a single gene, which they dubbed “shavenbaby”.  Using an array of genetic and molecular biological techniques, Dr. Frankel hopes to identify the specific changes that have rendered D. sechellia embryos less hirsute than their fruit fly relatives, and will try to determine how those changes shut down the activity of the shavenbaby gene.  His studies could yield insights into how different species evolve, a central question in modern molecular evolutionary biology.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Carneiro.jpgPaula Licona-Limón, Ph.D., received a doctorate in immunology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2008.  She will work with Dr. Richard Flavell at Yale University.  Dr. Licona-Limón will explore why immune cells turn against the body in diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS).  Such so-called autoimmune disorders occur when immune cells inappropriately target an individual’s own healthy tissues.  In the case of MS, the immune cells focus their attack on the myelin that sheathes nerves throughout the body.  However, not all immune cells participate in the attack.  One group, called Th17, precipitates the inflammation associated with MS; another group, called T regulatory cells, actually reign in the autoimmune response.  Using advanced techniques in molecular and cellular biology to fluorescently label Th17 and T regulatory cells in living mice, Dr. Licona-Limón will track the formation of these opposing cells during the early stages of autoimmune disease and explore how tipping the balance between them, one way or the other, exacerbates or eliminates disease.  Her work could lead to the development of new strategies for the effective treatment of autoimmune disorders such as MS.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Belluscio.jpgLeticia Irene Llarrull, Ph.D., received a doctorate in biological sciences from the University of Rosario, Argentina, in 2007.  She will train with Dr. Shahriar Mobashery at the University of Notre Dame.  Dr. Llarrull will explore the molecular mechanisms that allow drug-resistant bacteria, including the much-feared methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), to detect and escape antibiotics.  Microbes that are resistant to members of the beta-lactam family of antibiotics (such as penicillins and cephalosporins) destroy those drugs by producing an enzyme that snips the beta-lactam ring that lies at their core.  To do that, the bacterium first must recognize the antibiotic, then convey that sighting to the machinery that turns on the gene that encodes the protective enzyme.  Using sophisticated spectroscopic techniques, Dr. Llarrull wants to determine how antibiotics irreversibly alter the structure of the protein that MRSA uses to detect them, and explore how that altered structure triggers the production of the drug-degrading enzyme.  Her work could reveal novel strategies for rendering dangerous bugs such as MRSA sensitive to common antibiotics once again.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Carneiro.jpgCecilia Martin, Ph.D., received a doctorate in biomedical science from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2007.  If awarded a fellowship, she will work with Dr. William F. Crowley Jr. at the Massachusetts General Hospital.  Dr. Martin wants to understand the molecular cues that control human reproductive maturation.  In all mammals, including humans, the process of reproduction is governed by a single hormone, called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH).  This master regulator controls the synthesis of all other sex hormones, and humans with defects in GnRH production fail to develop secondary sexual characteristics during puberty.  Recently, Dr. Crowley discovered that mutations in a protein called prokinectin—and in the receptor that recognizes it—are responsible for this lack of sexual development in a subset of patients with these disorders.  Using advanced techniques in genetics, cell biology and bioinformatics, Dr. Martin hopes to identify the full range of mutations that occur in the prokinectin system in over 800 patients, and explore how these defects sabotage reproductive development.  Her results could shed light on the mysteries of sexual maturation and potentially lead to new treatments for infertility and other human reproductive disorders.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Belluscio.jpgHector Alex Saka, Ph.D., received a doctorate in chemical sciences from the National University of Cordoba, Argentina in 2006.  He will train with Dr. Raphael Valdivia (2004 Pew Scholar) at the Duke University Medical Center.  Dr. Saka intends to explore the molecular mechanisms that allow the bacterium Chlamydia to survive and grow inside human cells.  Chlamydia trachomatis is sexually transmitted and is the leading cause of preventable infectious blindness.  Once the bug infects a human cell, it holes up inside a protective structure called an inclusion.  But how Chlamydia is able to get the nutrients it needs to survive while sequestered inside that fortress is unclear.  Recent work from Dr. Valdivia’s lab suggests that Chlamydia can secure fats—which are necessary for the bacterium to be able to replicate—by capturing lipid droplets made by the host cell.  Using a range of sophisticated genetic, molecular, biological and microscopic techniques, Dr. Saka will try to piece together the molecular machinery that Chlamydia uses to secure these precious lipid droplets.  His findings could shed light on a previously unknown way that parasites can subvert their host cells, and ultimately could lead to the development of novel therapeutics for parasitic diseases.

/uploadedImages/Image_Library/News/Carneiro.jpgMarcos Sawada Simões-Costa, Ph.D., received a doctorate in cell biology from the University of São Paulo in 2008.  He will study with Dr. Marianne Bronner-Fraser of the California Institute of Technology.  Dr. Simões-Costa hopes to map out the complex network of genes that govern the development of the head and face.  Over the years, scientists have identified hundreds of individual genes that are involved in craniofacial development.  Some genes define the borders around the segment of embryonic tissue that will become the head and face; others control the formation of a special set of cells—called neural crest cells—that will give rise to facial bone and cartilage; and a third group directs neural crest cells to migrate to where they are needed.  Using state-of-the-art techniques in genetic analysis and imaging, Dr. Simões-Costa hopes to identify genes involved in the formation and specialization of neural crest cells and determine how these genes interact to guide craniofacial development in the embryonic chick.  His work could lead to interventions to prevent or treat craniofacial abnormalities, such as cleft-palate, which account for three-quarters of all human birth defects.

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