Thesis Written at Butantan wins USP Highlight Award for Unprecedented study with Trypanosome
by Butantan Team
Published: October 22, 2021
A survey carried out in the laboratories of the Butantan Institute was recognized in the 10th edition of the USP Highlight Thesis Award as one of the best doctoral theses defended at the University of São Paulo in the 2019/2020 biennium in the Biological Sciences category.
Entitled “Functional analysis of the Replication Protein A complex in trypanosomatids and its involvement with telomeric DNA”, the work was authored by biologist Raphael Souza Pavani, and was carried out in the Post-Graduate Program in Host Pathogen Relation Biology at the Instituto de Ciências Biomedical at USP and supervised by the scientific researcher and director of the Cell Cycle Laboratory at Butantan, Maria Carolina Sabbaga.
“He developed his thesis here at Butantan, with me in my laboratory. He did the experiments and brought them to me. So we discussed the next steps, whether to go this way or that way. We lead, but it is the student who brings the ideas”, explains Maria Carolina.
With the doctorate completed, the continuation of Rafael’s work will be carried out, from now on, by the laboratory’s team.
“We found a piece of the puzzle, but we want to build it whole,” she says.
The unprecedented study describes proteins that play an important role in preserving the trypanosome genome. Every organism (yeasts, bacteria, humans) has a system of several proteins with the function of maintaining the genome, which is our genetic information. The genome cannot suffer damage or major mutations, but it will also change the genetic information that is passed on to the descendants. The trypanosome is a protozoan that has a lot of genetic variability, and it shows this by becoming resistant to treatments and in the different symptoms it causes in the infected host. Raphael’s discovery was that one of the proteins that works in this preservation of the trypanosome leaves the nucleus and goes to the cytoplasm.
“He called me on a Friday night and said ‘you don’t know what I’m seeing here under the microscope: she’s out of the nucleus.’ I couldn’t believe it at the time, I even asked for a photo. This was totally surprising”, recalls the scientific researcher. The next step in the study is to find out why the protein leaves the nucleus and what it will do in the cytoplasm, in addition to finding out which other proteins interact with it.
Maria Carolina states that the fact that Raphael – her sixth adviser – won an award such as the USP Highlight Thesis made the other students even more excited about the experiments and the prospect of seeing their work recognized. But the path of the now doctor was not easy: Raphael was refused the scholarship on his own birthday. Therefore, the teacher emphasizes that you must always persevere when you want something.
“Even though we were discouraged, we said that we would not accept that, that we would fight for what we believed. We would show that the scholarship was important. It took a lot of work and perseverance, and in the end, it turned out to be a prize. Nothing comes for free. We have to fight a lot”, celebrates the researcher.
“Rafael went after him, studied and did a wonderful job. He is extremely dedicated. If anyone deserved to win this award, it was him. He read a lot, studied a lot, worked a lot and got along well with everyone,” she says.
Important role in the pandemic
In a time of pandemic, in which scientists are fighting so hard to fight SARS-CoV-2, dedication to science is essential not only to show the quality research done in Brazil, but to save lives. Maria Carolina herself has a fundamental role in Butantan’s initiatives to combat Covid-19. She is also deputy director of the Institute’s Scientific Development Center and one of the coordinators of the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus Diagnosis Laboratory Network and the SARS-CoV-2 Variant Alert Network.
She recalls when, in the beginning of 2020, she participated in a meeting with the president of Butantan, Dimas Covas. At the time, he spoke of his plan for Butantan to help Instituto Adolfo Lutz, the central public health laboratory in the state of São Paulo, which processed RT-PCR exam samples in the state – the institution was not managing to meet the demand. Maria Carolina did not think twice and agreed to be part of the initiative. The SARS-CoV-2 Variant Alert Network was a consequence of the Covid-19 diagnosis network.
We started to receive four thousand samples a day. So we thought:
“What if we sequence this? Let’s find the Covid-19 variants and understand the behavior of the virus“, she recalls.
Fourteen years of work have been dedicated to Butantan. Among so many stories, Maria Carolina recalls how difficult the start of the pandemic was, when there was still no vaccine or treatment and it was necessary to be very careful. The Butantan researchers gradually learned more about the disease, alongside scientists from all over the world.
“It was crazy, a lot of study. But President Dimas gave full support to the Alert Network. We needed to do this. It’s a pandemic. I couldn’t run away.”
She redoubled her attention on all fronts and faced more of this challenge. And she still found time not to stop taking care of her two daughters in the midst of all the turmoil. Maria Carolina explains the secret to being able to divide into so many.
“It’s having a good team, people who work well, people in whom you have security. My students do things really well, the staff from the Diagnostics Network and from Rede Alerta and our collaborators are super steady, so it’s easier. And trust in all of them is the most important thing ever.”