Maria Jose Alonso (Carrizo de la Ribera, León, 1958) was once again on the podium of the most influential researchers in Spain, based on the citation rate of her scientific works, index-h (ISI-DIH), the last recognition received in this month of March. She is a world pioneer in nanomedicine and important discoveries have been made in the field of vaccines and cancer treatments from the laboratory she directs in Santiago.
After his long career in the field of pharmaceutical technology. What would you say is the key to being a good researcher?
I think the key to being a good researcher is basically an interest in continually tackling challenges. I always tell my doctoral students that during the doctoral thesis there are a series of skills and abilities that can be acquired and strengthened. Teamwork in this field of experimental science research is very important, the ability to establish harmony and empathy with others is a skill that is acquired or reinforced, as is resilience. In research, most of the hypotheses that we put forward are finally not fulfilled because we move in a world of the unknown. The good thing is that even if it is not fulfilled, on the way to verifying that hypothesis you find new ideas and challenges again. That’s the life of a researcher, so you can’t sink if something doesn’t work out, but on the contrary, you have to quickly strengthen yourself and look for a new idea, a new challenge. Perseverance and the desire to do new things are the most important qualities.
She is the director of a pioneer laboratory in the field of pharmaceutical nanotechnology and nanomedicine. What is the greatest importance of this area?
Nanomedicine began half a century ago, in the first decades with little activity, and now with a lot. We already have more than fifty nanomedicines on the market, including covid nanovaccines. The Pzifer and Moderna vaccines are nanoparticles that contain the messenger RNA that encodes the expression of the antigen. At this time, nanotechnology applied to the development of vaccines or medicines based on RNA technologies, called advanced therapies, is undoubtedly a very cutting-edge field with a great future. Nanotechnology, in addition to applying it to RNA, can be applied to any type of drug that has a problem. This means that if a drug cannot be absorbed when administered by mouth and does not reach the blood or its therapeutic target because its properties do not allow it, we can include it in a nanovehicle that transports it through biological barriers and allows it to reach its therapeutic target. In addition, the nanoparticle protects its drugs against premature degradation.
What would you highlight from the stage in which you worked in the search for a vaccine against covid?
That stage was exciting and frustrating at the same time. A team of six people started working when everyone was confined to their homes and we dedicated almost two years to developing a messenger RNA vaccine against covid. The goal was to have a nasal vaccine but limited funding did not allow us to reach our goal. Luckily right now we are going to resume the subject thanks to a European project that we have just won, in which we are going to work with a messenger RNA vaccine against covid and other viral diseases.
She is heavily involved in cancer research. Have you gotten any treatment?
An article has just been published in Nature Communications about a job I did for more than eleven years during a sabbatical in the US and in collaboration with Americans and Anxo Vidal at CIMUS, where we developed a treatment for oral cancer that is now being developed by a company in the USA and are already in phase 3 of clinical trials, the last phase for the treatment of oral cancer. On the other hand, in the last decade we have focused on cancers that are difficult to cure, such as lung or pancreatic cancers, and in this line we work on a personalized therapy that targets a very specific target presented by certain patients suffering from lung cancer and pancreas. We have achieved very good results thanks to the Ignicia program of the Xunta de Galicia that led to the creation of the company Libera Bio, whose objective is to bring this treatment to the clinic.
In his long research career he has received outstanding awards; the last of her makes her figure once again in the leading group of Spanish women with scientific works with the greatest impact in research, according to the h-index ranking. How does she value it?
Currently, the amount of scientific publications available is enormous, so when people go to read they look for what is easiest, attractive and shows interesting results. I find the h-index positive, which refers to the number of people who have cited your work as interesting. If the number of articles you have is very high but the number of citations is very low, this indicates that the work is not of high quality, that people have not been interested. It must also be taken into account that the h-index depends on age and area. My collaborators dedicate a lot to writing an article because you have to appreciate that not only the background is important but also the way you present it.
What is the role that CIMUS plays in today’s society?
It is one of the unique research centers that were created more than a decade ago when Senén Barro was rector and I was vice-rector for Research. Together we worked on this proposal whose objective was to promote multidisciplinary research with a very strong commitment to translation and high-level scientific research. A decade later we are seeing that the unique centers are bearing fruit and that this initiative has been well received by the Xunta de Galicia. I would say that they are the benchmark for research in Galician universities, without detracting from those areas whose research does not require this framework.
What project are you currently involved in?
We currently continue with messenger RNA vaccines and we also work on cancer in different fields, from the perspective of personalized medicine and diagnosis. In collaboration with various groups in Spain and in a project coordinated with Pablo Aguiar at CIMUS, we are trying to achieve an early diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme, a very serious type of cancer whose essential problem is that it is diagnosed too late. In addition, everything that refers to pathologies at the level of the central nervous system interests me a lot. Along these lines, we have just linked two European projects related to Alzheimer’s therapy.