“We need more women taking the lead to break the glass ceiling of science”

Vanesa Gottifredi obtained the highest award for her research on how cancer develops and the search for new cures.

Vanesa Gottifredi is 49, PhD in human biology and a CONICET researcher. As she is really interested in communicating the value of science, she wants to explain her field of studies in the simplest way. For this reason, she resorts to unexpected metaphors and allegories –such as how to buy polymerases with a Ferrari; to the drivers of cancer as Achilles heel or to tumor cells to Darth Vader-, and now even more because she has been awarded the L`orèal Award “For Women in Science.” This prize will provide her with ARS $650 to continue the study she leads at the Laboratory of Cell Cycle and Genomic Stability of the Leloir Institute.

The scientist was awarded for the project called “Identification of new drugs that can be used in the design of precision treatments for breast and ovarian cancer: functional validation and disclosure of the mechanism of action.” In other words, Gottifredi analyzes why a cell becomes cancerous and how chemotherapy works in order to make this therapy more accurate, and eventually replaced by a better option.

Gottifredi is concerned about the increasing rate of cancer over the years and the fact that we do not know the reason: “We are completely bent by this disease, we’re all afraid of having cancer and we all know someone who has it,” the researcher comments. She grew up in the province of Salta and she from a very young age she knew she wanted to be a scientist-her father is a CONICET researcher. She studied chemistry at the University of Salta and soon realized that what she liked most was human cell biology, “where you have ‘this black box with two million variables, which is the cell, and you try to modify a gene, obtain its function or increase it, and try to keep all other variables constant and understand the gene’s function.”

After her graduation, she studied abroad for eleven years –first in Rome and then in New York- until she came back to Argentina to do science. Gottifredi began to work on virus duplication until she reached the function of the cells and specialized in the P53 protein, tumor suppressor. When this protein mutates into cancer, it changes it function from being the guardian the genome to be the one that propagates the tumor, or in Gotiffredi’s words, to be “a Darth Vader.”

“I’ve always liked the idea of leading a non-routine life in which every day I could rethink if my question is right or if it helps in anything, or if it can transcend in anyway,” she says. Her passion for her work does not mean that she spends most of her time in the laboratory: she exercises, dances –she met her husband in a ‘milonga’- and loves spending time with her little daughter.

When she talks about achievements in science, she insists that it’s always teamwork. “Knowledge, as long as possible, should have no property. We, scientists, are the minds that can solve a country’s problems.” She remembers this by an anecdote that her father always tells her: “It is said that Churchill did not know what to do with the Germans who were destroying all the planes and asked to speak with ‘some intelligent people, example scientists.’ He ended up meeting a physicist, who listened and did not understand anything about military strategy, but told them: ‘If they want the radars not to detect the planes, they have to make the planes throw aluminum sticks. That will confuse the radar. They did that, and so they managed to fight for many years during the war,” Gottifredi recalls. “For this reason, it is important that a country should value the work of its scientists.”

In addition to the valuing research work, Gottifredi aims at the need to “break the glass ceiling of science. It is a ceiling that exists, it’s nobody’s fault. There is no genetic cause for women to be less leaders than men, the cause is social or psychological, it is within the collective imagination, a social conscience that, fortunately, for some years, men and women have been fighting: we must change the collective imagination regarding quotas, awards and disseminate the need for women to be leaders in the world.”

When she received the call from the president of CONICET informing her that she had won the L`orèal Award, she felt that she had finally achieved it. She had already applied in six editions to the prize and had received the 2013 L`orèal recognition. “I’ve waited for many years that call, although in the previous editions I met scientists who make great contributions to science,” she confesses. After she hung up the phone, she went to a congress. “I spent half the time listening to the speaker and half happy, and in the evening I went out to celebrate with my family and told some friends.”

The winning work

Gottifredi’s study is about cancer: it is a known fact that the different types of cancer arise from an abnormality in the DNA duplication process. This means that the cells are multiplying all the time in our body and in that of all living organisms, millions of times a day. In that multiplication, sometimes there are “failures”-the DNA is not replicated as is the original- which are harmless, and sometimes beneficial. Thanks to them, in fact, evolution occurs: some beings develop wings (as it happens with birds) or legs (in the case of other animals). However, in some occasions these “failures” become insurmountable: in the cases where the cells turn into malignant cells, they don’t respect the duplication process, loose their social function and do not worry about what tissue they belong to. “It is the same principle of viruses. From a group of cells that work in an orderly way and want to respond to an organism and have social control, there are cells that say ‘no, I won’t respond to anything, my only aim is to divide myself,’ the scientist explains.

Chemotherapy as a therapy acts a copying barrier for those cells that divide a lot. “Let’s imagine that in a beautiful street a Ferrari passes, which would be polymerase. If I put bumps in the road, the Ferrari will have lots of problems. So I drive a 4×4 car, a helicopter, or other vehicle capable of working despite the bumpy road. The body does that: before chemotherapy, which would be the bumps, it overlaps with other ‘vehicles,’ Gottifredi describes and adds: “We aim to identify the most efficient vehicles to block them in tumor cells, so that the DNA does not duplicate, that is, to prevent cancer from spreading. That is the question in our laboratory: how to make chemotherapy more selective to work better and use fewer drugs in the long run.”

The other line of work of the laboratory led by Gottifredi focuses on the analyses on how certain cell is mutagenized and becomes a tumor: it can be for random reasons or genetic predisposition. So they focused on tumor drivers. “These drivers can be called ‘Achilles’ heel’ because to be a tumor it is necessary to pay a price, lose a function that I call ‘Achilles’ heel.’ In the case of breast or ovarian cancer, there is a loss of a very frequent DNA repair function: in breast cancer, it is 22 per cent and in ovarian cancer, 60 per cent. It is vital to look for drugs that attack cells that have lost that function, that have that Achilles heel. So the treatment will kill tumor cells with an Achilles heel, but it will not affect healthy cells with intact heels. This function is called homologous recombination, and there are drugs in the market that use this principle but it seems that one of the biggest problems is that they generate resistance.”

For five years, at the laboratory -which is provided with funds and collaboration from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)-, the scientists look for drugs to be in charge of killing those tumor cells that do not have homologous recombination. “In fact, we have a theory on that Achilles heel. We think that that heel is exposed to a late stage of DNA duplication but we need to prove it. If we do it, we’ll know where to focus on.”

By Cintia Kemelmajer
Translation: Cintia González